Illustration of the female reproductive cycle, from Manṣūr’s anatomy (Tašrīḥ-i Manṣūrī), 1656

A rare collection of Islamic medical manuscripts has gone on display for the first time, illuminating medical traditions that developed in the Golden Age of Islamic culture, between the 9th and 17th centuries AD.

Based at the Royal College of Physicians in London, and curated by Professor Peter E Pormann from The University of Manchester, The mirror of health: discovering medicine in the golden age of Islam explores the evolution of medical practices in Europe and the Middle East, and the interactions and exchange of influences between the two schools of thought.

While Islamic medicine initially drew heavily on Ancient Greek knowledge – particularly humoral pathology, in which human health is governed by the balance of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile – by the Renaissance Arabic learning was a dominant, pioneering trend.

‘When we look deep into the medical tradition of Islamic lands, we recognise many reflections with today – which is why we called the exhibition ‘Mirror of health,’ said Professor Pormann. ‘The Islamic medics not only transmitted and translated medical thought and practice from Ancient Greece, but also innovated and changed the science. This enabled medicine to evolve over the centuries into the truly sophisticated science we know today.’

The manuscripts, which date back to the 9th century, are complemented by artefacts on loan from the collections of the Science Museum, London, Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, The Bodleian Library, Oxford and Eton College, Windsor.

The Mirror of Health: Discovering Medicine in the Golden Age of Islam, runs from 1 May to 25 October 2013.

 

Paracelsus (1493-1541) was an alchemist, as well as a physician, who rejected the dominant medical theories of the time to propose a new system based on the discoveries being made using alchemical processes. © Royal College of Physiciansmore
Royal Chemistry by Oswald Croll, published Frankfurt 1611 Croll was a supporter of the new chemical medicine system using elements refined by alchemical processes, proposed by Paracelsus as an alternative basis for medical treatment to Galen’s system of the balancing of the four humours (elements) that made up the body. © Royal College of Physiciansmore
Print of Avicenna (AD 970-1037) showing him reading one of Galen’s works. Galen in the 2nd century set out a system of medicine which, developed and advanced by Avicenna, dominated medical theory and practice right up to the Renaissance. © Royal College of Physiciansmore
Male veins and arteries, illustration from Manṣūr’s anatomy (Tašrīḥ-i Manṣūrī), 1656 © Royal College of Physiciansmore