Painting entitled ‘Abulcasis blistering a patient in the hospital at Cordova.’

Al-Zahrawi: The Legacy of the Father of Modern Surgery

(Read the article on one page)

The period from the 8th century until the 13th century AD is commonly referred to as the Islamic Golden Age. During this era, the Islamic world produced numerous scholars who contributed greatly to various branches of human knowledge, including philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. Islamic intellectuals during this age made many important contributions to the history of medicine, including 'Ali ibn al-'Abbas al-Majusi (Latinized as Haly Abbas), Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī (Latinized as Rhazes or Rasis), and Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās az-Zahrāwī (popularly known as Al-Zahrawi, and Latinized as Abulcasis).

The Life of Al-Zahrawi

Al-Zahrawi was born in 936 AD in El-Zahra, near Cordoba, Andalusia, southern Spain. This was the most prosperous period of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba, which was in control of the region. Unfortunately, little is known about Al-Zahrawi’s life. It is said that Al-Zahrawi received royal patronage and was recognized as a medical genius. Thus, for over 50 years, he served as the court physician to the second caliph of Cordoba, Al-Hakam II, and al-Mansur, the de facto ruler of Muslim Spain after the death of Al-Hakam.

Al-Zahrawi, the “father of modern surgery.”

Al-Zahrawi, the “father of modern surgery.” ( Public Domain )

Nevertheless, it is said that Al-Zahrawi insisted on seeing patients regardless of their financial status. This allowed Al-Zahrawi to see a wide variety of patients each day, and record his treatment of them. By doing so, the court physician left behind a valuable medical treatise known as the Al-Tasrif li man ajaz an-il-talif  (‘An Aid for Those Who Lack the Capacity to Read Big Books’), or simply as the Al-Tasrif.

Al-Tasrif: An Encyclopedia of Medicine

The Al-Tasrif may be considered as a very important piece of work in the history of medicine, as it became the standard reference in Islamic and European medicine for over half a century. This encyclopedia of medicine was completed around the year 1000 AD, and is divided into 30 volumes. Each volume deals with a different aspect of medicine, and descriptions of over 300 diseases as well as their treatments can be found within them.

Illustration of medieval Muslim surgical instruments taken from al-Zahrawi's Kitab al-Tasrif.

Illustration of medieval Muslim surgical instruments taken from al-Zahrawi's Kitab al-Tasrif. ( Public Domain )

Additionally, other aspects of medicine are discussed in the Al-Tasrif. For instance, in one of the early volumes, Al-Zahrawi wrote about the way to diagnose diseases and remarked that a good doctor should always rely on his own observations of a patient and his/her symptoms, rather than just accepting what is being said by the patient.

Al-Zahrawi also wrote about the relationship between health and food. Parts of the A l-Tasrif were dedicated to discussing what foods that one should avoid, the maintenance of a healthy diet, and the use of food as part of a treatment plan.   

Title page from the first Latin translation of the Al-Tasrif, here called the Liber theoricae nec non practicae Alsaharavii

Title page from the first Latin translation of the Al-Tasrif, here called the Liber theoricae nec non practicae Alsaharavii (Theoretical and practical book by al-Zahrawi). (1599). ( Public Domain )

Al-Tasrif: Dedication to Modern Surgery

The part of the Al-Tasrif considered by many to be its most influential is the 30th volume. This volume is dedicated to surgery, and it is due to this part of his work that Al-Zahrawi has been dubbed as the ‘Father of Modern Surgery.’ Amongst other things, this volume contained detailed explanations for the procedures of certain surgeries, about 200 descriptions and illustrations of surgical instruments (these pictures are said to be the earliest of its kind in history), as well as a number of innovations that became widely used in operation theaters.

Surgical operations in the middle Ages, the work of Arab doctors.

Surgical operations in the middle Ages, the work of Arab doctors. ( Public Domain )

For example, Al-Zahrawi is said to have been the first surgeon to use cat intestines as the thread for internal stitches. This material is made from the lining of the intestines of animals, and was for a long time the only material that could have been used for stitches and still be absorbed by the human body.

The use of cat intestines for this purpose meant that there was no need for a second surgery to remove the internal stitches. Another innovation said to be first used by Al-Zahrawi, and later became standard practice in the field of surgery, is the usage of ink to mark the incisions in patients preoperatively.

Comments

I would like to get information about history of medicine and become familiar with experts in this field

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Related Ancient Origins Articles

Top New Stories

Seventy-five graves with about 150 skeletons have been uncovered at the construction site in Pocklington, England. Workers halted construction so an archaeological firm could excavate and document the site. Usually when human remains are exhumed they are returned to the earth later, but grave artifacts go to museums.
Yet more fantastic finds are coming out of an Iron Age burial site in England that dates back about 2,500 years. The latest discovery was a burial of a chariot and two horses on the periphery of a cemetery that has yielded grave goods of swords, spears, shields, jewelry, beads, and pottery.

Myths & Legends

Statue of Persephone, circa 525 BC and painting The Deluge
The myth of the underworld, much like the myth of the lost paradise and the worldwide deluge, is a universal one. Cultures from all across the world, past and present, widely separated and with seemingly no historical contact, believed in this mysterious realm that the spirits of the deceased went to after death.

Ancient Technology

An Ulfberht sword displayed at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, Germany
Ulfberht was like a Medieval luxury brand for swords—but unlike your Gucci purse, the swords were of such high quality they were almost … mystical. Dozens of these swords—made with metal so strong and pure it’s baffling how any sword maker of that time could have accomplished it

Ancient Places

Statue of Persephone, circa 525 BC and painting The Deluge
The myth of the underworld, much like the myth of the lost paradise and the worldwide deluge, is a universal one. Cultures from all across the world, past and present, widely separated and with seemingly no historical contact, believed in this mysterious realm that the spirits of the deceased went to after death.

Opinion

Statue of Persephone, circa 525 BC and painting The Deluge
The myth of the underworld, much like the myth of the lost paradise and the worldwide deluge, is a universal one. Cultures from all across the world, past and present, widely separated and with seemingly no historical contact, believed in this mysterious realm that the spirits of the deceased went to after death.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article