Ala ad-Din Abu al-'Ala 'Ali ibn Abi al-Haram al-Qurayshi ad-Dimashqi ibn an-Nafis

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Ala ad-Din Abu al-'Ala 'Ali ibn Abi al-Haram al-Qurayshi ad-Dimashqi ibn an-Nafis

1210-1280

Arab Palestinian Physician

Ibn an-Nafis was a famous Arab physician and writer who contributed to the value of Arab medicine by helping preserve and systematize existing medical knowledge, as well as commenting on and explaining the ideas in these documents. He proposed the circulation of the blood 300 years before this was identified in the West by Michael Servetus (1511-1553), Realdo Colombo (1516?-1559?), and William Harvey (1578-1657).

Born at al-Qarashi near Damascus, Ibn an-Nafis studied medicine at the great medical college-cum-hospital in Damascus, founded by Nur al-Din Zangi. As with many physicians of his day, Ibn an-Nafis's interests were wide and varied. He was versed in logic, grammar, theology, literature, and law, in addition to medicine. He became a renowned scholar at the Shafis School of Jurisprudence as well as a great physician.

Ibn an-Nafis then moved to Cairo, where he served as principal of the famous Nasri Hospital and trained many famous medical specialists. He was appointed chief physician by the Mamluk sultan al-Bunduqdari, who reigned from 1260 to 1277, and served as his personal physician.

Like many Arab writers, Ibn an-Nafis was very thorough and systematic. His writings were numerous, and he joined the hosts of those who repeatedly copied manuscripts, preserving and organizing them. He was careful to preserve the spirit of Hippocrates (460-377 b.c.) and Ibn Sina (980-1037) and wrote commentaries on their work. But Ibn an-Nafis went further. He made original comments from his observations and departed from just slavish copying and organizing to critical thinking.

In addition to being a physician, he wrote on religion and law. However, it was in the field of medicine that he is most recognized. His book Kitab al-Shamil (Comprehensive book on the art of medicine), was written in his thirties. It consisted of 300 volumes of notes, of which he published only 80. Until 1952 this massive work was thought to be lost. It was subsequently rediscovered and catalogued in Cambridge University's collection of Islamic manuscripts. Earlier, a librarian had catalogued four manuscripts of this work without realizing who the author was. Another of Ibn an-Nafis's works, Majiz al Qanun, was vastly popular in his day and become the source of many subsequent commentaries. A number of early Arabic manuscript copies of Ibn an-Nafis's works are on display in Damascus.

The book, so far unpublished, had an important section on surgical technique that threw new light on Ibn an-Nafis as a surgeon. In it he defined three stages for each operation. First, there is the presentation where the diagnosis is made and the patient entrusts his life and body to the surgeon; second, the operation; and last, the preservation or post-operative care. The book gives detailed descriptions of duties of surgeons and relationships among patients, surgeons, and nurses. He also discusses decubitus or bed sores, posture, bodily movement, and manipulations of instruments. He illustrated his points with case histories.

However, Ibn an-Nafis is best known for his commentary on the anatomy of Avicenna, the Sharh Tashrih al Qanun, including one passage in which he describes the pulmonary blood circulation. Galen (130-200) had earlier proposed that circulation of the blood in the heart went through tiny holes in the walls of the septum. Ibn an-Nafis challenged Galen, asserting that the blood could not pass through the tough septum, but must first go to the lungs. He proposed that the lungs were made of several parts, the bronchi and branches of small arteries and veins connected to porous flesh. This discovery can be fixed at 1242. For years the descriptions fell into obscurity. It would be 300 years before others developed the idea. Servetus, Colombo, and Harvey are credited with the discovery of circulation. Some historians think these physicians may have had access to Ibn an-Nafis's work because several translations were made from the Arabic manuscripts into Latin around 1547.

Another important, but rarely mentioned, contribution by Ibn an-Nafis is his proposal that the nutrition of the heart is extracted from small vessels in the heart's wall. He was the first to postulate coronary circulation.

Ibn an-Nafis's Sharh al Qanun consists of four books, including commentaries on medicines and drugs, and diseases that are not specific to certain organs. He also wrote a commentary on Hippocrates' Epidemics, a book on ophthalmology, and a general reference for physicians.

Ibn an-Nafis was reputed to have recorded his own experiences, observations, and deductions, rather than using reference books. His Islamic religion and beliefs about mercy towards animals prevented him from doing experimental anatomy. If he had studied the anatomy of animals, he probably could have developed a very accurate description of the anatomy of circulation.

The date of Ibn an-Nafis's birth is disputed; while the accepted date is 1210, some place it at 1200 or 1213. Toward the end of his life he bequeathed his house and library to the newly founded Dar al Shifa, or House of Recovery, also called the Qulawum, or Mansuri Hospital, established in 1284. He died on December 17, 1280, of an unknown illness.

EVELYN B. KELLY

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Ala ad-Din Abu al-'Ala 'Ali ibn Abi al-Haram al-Qurayshi ad-Dimashqi ibn an-Nafis

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Ala ad-Din Abu al-'Ala 'Ali ibn Abi al-Haram al-Qurayshi ad-Dimashqi ibn an-Nafis