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A million healing words flow from compendium.

ISFAHAN, Persia, March 1023--Faced with a particularly puzzling or difficult case, royal physicians and hospital surgeons have traditionally turned to the wandering bachelor healer, Abu Ali ibn Sina. In the future, consulting this renowned medical scientist will no longer require trekking throughout Persia. Doctors can instead let their fingers do the walking through Ibn Sina's new Canon of Medicine, an encyclopedic compendium of medical wisdom.

"It's like having an entire medical school in a book," observes physician Abu Raihan Muhammad al-Biruni, reached at his home in Ghazna, Uzbekistan. "For many of us, medicine is not a full-time job," he points out. "If, as I do, you spend at least as much time immersed in astronomy, mathematics, and geology," he says, "Ibn Sina's new canon can prove a lifesaver--literally."

Ibn Sina, himself a part-time philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, jurist, and theologian, explains, "I sat up nights writing this five-volume work over much of the past 11 years in the hope that it might give me my life back." As his reputation has grown over the past few decades, colleagues have increasingly been dropping by unannounced to discuss a case or sending him problem patients without warning. None has ever been turned away, he says.

With the encyclopedia now published, Ibn Sina says, "I hope clinicians can find the help they need within their hospital--or certainly within their caliphate."

"The reason we refer to Ibn Sina as the `Prince of Physicians,'" observes Omar al-Haqqi, chief physician at Bukhara Medical College, "is not because he is necessarily the best clinician or experimentalist of all time. His real achievement--the one for which he will be remembered through the ages--is his unerring ability to systematize a library of medicine into a few volumes that are at once logical and useful."

The new encyclopedia covers traditional medical science, such as the known diseases of organs, their symptoms, and their cures. The book catalogs the uses and efficacy of some 760 drugs. Its 1 million words also describe many new observations, theories, and techniques. The book thereby advances the medicine inherited from the Greeks, Ibn Sina asserts.

For instance, the canon takes the radical view that when physicians are presented with a new, potentially therapeutic agent, they should resist using it until the substance has been tested in animals.

Also, Ibn Sina identifies a new and potentially deadly condition, meningitis, and reports that tuberculosis is contagious. Moreover, he offers the novel observation that many diseases spread in epidemic fashion via diseased soil and water.

The encyclopedia offers up the first detailed descriptions of the eye, including the cornea, iris, retina, aqueous humor, and optic nerve. Ibn Sina also puts forward a new theory developed by optics specialist Ibn al-Haytham. It holds that what we see is not due to rays emanating from our eyes. Instead, al-Haytham's data make a compelling case that we see because rays of light bounce off objects and then enter our eyes.

The canon considers the role of emotions in health, noting that music can benefit patients and that love sickness can masquerade as more organic ailments.

In a sense, Ibn Sina has been working on these volumes since his late teens when, as a reward for his medical prowess, he was given unfettered access to the royal library of Nuh ibn Mansur, the king of Bukhara. "It was at this time that I not only developed a real love of books but also realized their power to take the wisdom and observation of a few and translate it to the many," Ibn Sina recalls.

"My colleague has now done just that," says Ibn al-Haytham. "Between the covers of Ibn Sina's canon is a bazaar of medical insights. It offers one-stop shopping for healers of any experience level."
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Author:Raloff, J.
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Dec 18, 1999
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