Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi

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Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi

d. 994

Persian Physician

Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi, known in Europe by his latinized name, Haly Abbas, was born in Ahvaz in the kingdom of Persia (now part of Iran). He was a highly influential physician during the tenth century. However, very little is known of his life other than the writings he left behind. He is most famous for authoring a work entitled al-Maliki, or The Royal Book, which remained the most important medical encyclopedia in the Arabic and European world for more than a century after its creation.

Al-Majusi apparently received his medical training from a private tutor. He also studied the works of ancient Greek physicians that had been translated into Arabic. He eventually went on to serve as court physician to King Adud ad-Dawlah (936-983) in the city of Baghdad (located in modern Iraq). In 981 this king founded the Adudi hospital, where al-Majusi worked.

In about 980 al-Majusi completed The Royal Book. It was widely used not only in Persia and other Arabic countries, but also in many parts of Europe after it was translated into Latin. The Royal Book is a collection of medical knowledge meant to be used as a reference for physicians. The first half deals with theories behind medical treatment. It covers such topics as anatomy (the structure of the body's parts) and physiology (the function of these parts). The second half of the book deals with medical treatments themselves, such as drugs and surgery. In fact, TheRoyal Book was the first Arabic work to give detailed instructions regarding surgery.

For example, one operation al-Majusi describes is the treatment of an aneurysm—a bulge in a type of blood vessel called an artery that results from a weakening in the artery's wall. Al-Majusi states that surgery on large arteries should be avoided because of risk of death from blood loss. (Blood transfusions would not be widely used until the twentieth century.) For smaller arteries, however, al-Majusi advised physicians to cut open the patient's flesh to expose the blood vessel and then to tie it off at either end of the aneurysm with silk thread. A very similar procedure is used to treat aneurysms in small arteries to this day.

In the portion of the book dealing with medicines, al-Majusi states that the best way to determine the effects of a drug is to test it on healthy people as well as the sick and to keep careful records of the results. He offers a classification system for drugs based on their properties and also describes methods of preparing pills, syrups, powders, ointments, and so forth. Other chapters of the book discuss diet, exercise, and even bathing as they relate to health.

Much of the material in The Royal Book is based on the writings of Galen (130-200). Galen was an influential Greek physician, and by al-Majusi's lifetime more than 100 of his books had been translated into Arabic. Al-Majusi attempted to correct errors in Galen's works that had been revealed in the centuries since they had been written. Al-Majusi also wanted to arrange the information accumulated by Galen into a form that would be easy for physicians to use.

Al-Majusi's other main source was the Arabic physician ar-Razi (Rhazes; 865-923). Ar-Razi's most famous medical work was called the Comprehensive Book. Although al-Majusi clearly valued the Comprehensive Book, he criticized it for not being well organized and for being too long. Its length—more than 23 volumes—made it so expensive that almost no physician could afford to own a copy.

Al-Majusi's Royal Book solved these problems, as he organized and clarified ancient Greek and more recent Arabic medical knowledge into a single, more affordable book. However, his Royal Book was not entirely based on the work of others; al-Majusi also included his own observations. For instance, he stated that both arteries and veins carried blood. Most physicians of the time thought that veins carried blood, while arteries carried air. The Royal Book would also have a profound influence on Ibn Sina's (980-1037) Canon of Medicine, considered by many to be the most important medical book of the Middle Ages.



The werewolf myth first appeared among the ancient Greeks and Romans and was well known throughout the Middle Ages. Thieves striking at night would sometimes wear wolf skins, knowing that the fear of werewolves would make their victims hand over money more quickly. Such behavior tended to reinforce tales of shape-shifting monsters.

Perhaps as a result of the myth's popularity, people with mental disorders who lived during this time were unusually susceptible to believing that they themselves were werewolves (even though in some places suspected werewolves were burned alive). In fact, one of the disorders al-Majusi discusses in The Royal Book is lycanthropy (which comes from the Greek words lykos, meaning "wolf," and anthropos, meaning "man"). Patients with this condition, he says, behave like dogs and lurk about graveyards at night. They may have yellowish skin, dark eyes, and bite marks on their legs. He considered lycanthropy to be incurable and classified it as a mental illness (rather than a supernatural one). Today, lycanthropy is still considered to be an actual, though very rare, disorder in which the patient believes he or she is a wolf or some other type of animal.


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Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi

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