Abu Bakr Mohammed ibn Zakariya ar-Razi (born in Rey, Iran – c. 841-926) gave no early indication that he would someday be considered the greatest of all Islamic Caliphate’s physicians.
He spent his youth pursuing music, mathematics and alchemy. As an alchemist he pioneered in the use of mercurial ointments in the treatment of disease. Then, at the age of forty, he turned his attention to medicine.
Ar-Razi (later known in the West by the Latinized version of his name, “Rhazes”) went to the great teaching hospitals of Baghdad, the Abassid capital, for his training. Completing his studies, he returned to Rey and assumed directorship of its hospital.
His reputation grew rapidly and within a few years he became the director of a new hospital in Baghdad. He approached the question of where to put the new facility by hanging pieces of meat in various sections of the city. Several days later he returned and ordered the hospital built at the site where the meat showed the least amount of decay.
Ar-Razi is one of the greatest Muslim clinicians and its most original thinker. A prolific writer, he turned out some 237 books, about half of which deal with medicine. His treatise, “The Diseases of Children,” has led some historians to regard him as the “Father of Pediatrics”. Ar-Razi was the first to identify hay fever and its cause. His work on kidney stones is still considered a classic.
In addition, he was instrumental in the introduction of mercurial ointments to medical practice. Ar-Razi was a strong proponent of experimental medicine and the beneficial uses of medicinal plants and drugs.
A leader in the fight against quacks and charlatans, he called for high professional standards for practitioners. He also insisted on “continuing education” for already licensed physicians.
Following his term as hospital director in Baghdad, he returned to Rey where he taught the healing arts in the local hospital, and continued to write. Moreover, his first major work was the ten-part treatise “Al-Kittab al Mansuri.”
In it, he discussed such varied subjects as general medical theories and definitions; diet and drugs, and their effects on the human body; maternal health and childcare; skin disease; mouth hygiene; climatology and the effect of the environment on health; epidemiology; and toxicology.
Ar-Razi also prepared “Al-Judari wal Hasbah” the first treatise ever written on smallpox and measles. In a masterful demonstration of clinical observation and acumen, Ar-Razi became the first to distinguish the two diseases from each other. At the same time, he provided still valid guidelines for the sound and rational treatment of both diseases.
Ar-Razi’s greatest work was a medical encyclopedia of twenty-five books, Al-Kittab al Hawi. He spent a lifetime collecting data for the book. It’s a summary of all the medical knowledge of Rhazes’s time. Yet, he also augmented it by his own experiences and observations.
In “Al Hawi,” ar-Razi went beyond the simple translations of his predecessors. He also emphasized the need for physicians to pay careful attention to what the patient’s history told them, and not merely accept the obvious answer.
In a section entitled, “Illustrative Accounts of Patients,” ar-Razi demonstrated this tenet. One patient, living in a malarial district and suffering from intermittent chills and fever had been diagnosed with malaria that seemed to be incurable.
When ar-Razi was examining the man, he refused to accept the obvious answer to illness and did a thorough examination. Seeing pus in the patient’s urine, ar-Razi made the correct diagnosis of an infected kidney and treated the patient successfully with diuretics.
The importance of ar-Razi’s work to later physicians cannot be overestimated. “Al-Kittab al Hawi” was translated in Latin (as “Liber Continens”) and became one of the standard medical reference works of Renaissance Europe. In fact, portions of it were still in use in European medical schools until well into the 19th Century.