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History of Ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia & Iran
Last Updated: October, 2009

"WAlchemists tried to convert one substance into another in order to make gold. In the process they uncovered a host of medicinal compounds and improved distillation and sublimation techniques. Another major Greek tradition based on theories of Plato and Euclid on light opened the way to the science of optics. The human eye became the focus of study and major advances were made resulting in improved eye care. The Iranian-Jewish Physician Masawayh practicing at Jundaishapur joined the medical school at Baghdad at the invitation of Caliph Harun al-Rashid and wrote a detailed book on Ophthalmology. Masawayh family produced three more prominent physicians, including the most famous Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh who wrote prolifically with 42 works are attributed to him. Another great Iranian-Jewish physician who had served at Jundaishapur was Hunain Ibn Ishaq. He translated the entire collection of Greek medical works including Galen and Hippocrates. His original contributions included 10 works on ophthalmology. He was appointed to the position of director of the royal library in Baghdad, by Caliph al Mutawakkil. Tabbari, another major physician, migrated from Persia to Baghdad in the first half of the 9th century AD. His major work called Paradise of Wisdom contained extensive information from all extant sources including Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian and contained an extensive treatment of Anatomy.

Like their Greek predecessors the new genre of physicians produced Encyclopedias of medical knowledge based on observation and experience. The main topics included anatomy, classification and causation of disease, symptoms and diagnosis. Urine, sputum, saliva and pulse were observed and used to aid diagnosis. External or visible manifestations of disease and internal symptoms like fever, headache, etc were listed and studied. Hygiene was examined, and dietetics, cosmetics, and therapy with drugs and herbs were used to improve the patient’s conditions. Female practitioners and nurses that existed before Islam remained for a while, but soon lost their position and only midwives continued and most had no proper training.

The flourishing of sciences and the translation movement did not last long for a number of reasons including foreign military attacks. The sciences including medicine were foreign imports as far as many Arabs were concerned and met with opposition from various quarters. From the time when the translation movement began to the end of the Islamic Middle Ages, these sciences were either frowned upon or openly attacked by practitioners of indigenous religious and Arabic disciplines. Aristotelian logic was rejected and the adherents of the religious tradition of Kalam had no use for Neo-platonic doctrines of the followers of Greek philosophy. The ‘foreign sciences’, which included mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy and astrology, were generally felt by religious people to constitute a serious threat to religious beliefs and values of religious life. The influential religious thinker al-Ghazali (who died in 1111 AD) wrote a popular refutation of philosophy and repeatedly warned against exposing Muslims to potentially misleading rational sciences and practices.

The Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya (1328) launched a passionate and uncompromising attack on Greek logic. There were defenders as well, like Ibn Hazm who maintained a literalist view of Islamic law, but did not openly attack Greek tradition. The other was al-Kindi (870 AD) an Arab aristocrat who supported the Greek scientific tradition, which in his time was identified mainly with non-Muslims and non-Arabs. Although the rational sciences remained prominent for a while, in the end they were replaced especially after the conquest and destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols (1258AD). Medicine, along with other sciences, was soon forgotten and once again magic, superstition and prayers with rudimentary medicine replaced the brilliant scientific traditions. Magicians, sooth-sawyers, exorcists and self-trained herbalists replaced qualified trained medical practitioners and the concept of hospitals faded from the memory. Religious leaders fiercely opposed anatomy and no new knowledge emerged until the advent of modern medicine and importation of European medical knowledge into Muslim countries in the 19th century.

The second half of the 19th century is the beginning of major political and ideological transformations in Iran and the start of the modernization processes. Modern sciences and western ideas of democracy, civil society, enlightenment, human rights and emancipation of women were introduced through the translation of European texts into Persian. The Armenians of Isfahan for their exclusive use imported the first printing machine in 1641. However, the first printing machine in Persian started work in Tabriz in 1813 and the book industry was changed forever. The first modern school Dar al-Fonoun (the Institute of technology) started work in 1851 with a few European instructors and texts were translated from a number of European languages to introduce Iranian pupils to modern sciences.


Educated Iranians joined and in no time tens of books in Geography, Engineering, Medicine, Military, Biology, Mathematics and other disciplines were translated. The modernization movement resulted in the constitutional revolution (1906) and the secularization movement began in the country. Iranian students were sent to Europe with government sponsorship and the first modern doctors were educated in Europe. For the first time since the Sasanian period a major university with different faculties was built.

In 1934 a new legislation was passed and a budget was allocated to build the first university in Tehran. The medical School at Tehran was the first faculty and soon more modern universities followed in other parts of the country. In 1936 for the first time 12 women were admitted into Tehran University. They entered all faculties, included was Dr. Forough Kia who later joined the faculty of medicine. The medical schools were built on European models and were staffed with qualified educated practitioners and physicians. Nursing schools were followed and new modern hospitals were built throughout the country. In the 1970s foreign doctors were employed mainly from India and were sent to rural clinics. The medical schools at the major universities enjoyed a high standard and graduates of these universities had no problems continuing postgraduate studies in any of the major medical schools in Europe or North America.

The closure of the universities after the Islamic revolution of 1979 created havoc and damaged the universities. Once opened, in order to follow the Muslim first policies many highly qualified lectures, teachers and instructors were forced into early retirement and many left voluntarily. With the medical schools there was confusion about the legitimacy of anatomical studies and dissection and whether the practices were acceptable in Islam. Dissecting Muslims was ruled out as unacceptable for a while, but was re-instated with caution and bodies of non-Muslims were imported as well mainly from India.

There were attempts to segregate sexes by sending women to female doctors only.  Despite persistence and even legislation the practice has failed since there are not enough female physicians in the country. In the second decade after the revolution many new medical schools were established in cities and rural areas. However, the standards have remained low with inadequate facilities, management and tutors. Currently too many physicians are trained and some have not been able to find employment in the medical field. Contrary to the earlier Islamic periods empirical and applied sciences have persisted and the medical sciences have remained entirely modern and western oriented.
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