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The “Father of Surgery” Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi

Known as the “Father of Surgery” Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi is a pioneering 10th century Muslim physician, who made significant contributions to medicine.

Born during the Islamic Golden Age he is renowned for inventing surgical practices that still influence medicine today.

Al-Zahrawi, known in the West as Albucasis, was born in the city of Zahra, near Cordoba, Spain. He excelled in the fields of internal medicine, surgery, and ophthalmology, and contributed significantly to the progress of medical knowledge and surgical techniques.

Albucasis blistering a patient in the hospital at Cordova, Wellcome Collection Gallery.

His most famous work is the "Kitab al-Tasrif," a comprehensive medical encyclopedia that covered a wide range of medical topics, including surgery, medicine, and pharmacology. It became one of the most influential medical texts in both the Islamic and Western worlds for centuries.

Two pages from the Arabic manuscript of the Kitab al-Tasrif. Middle East, 13th century, Chester Beatty Library.

Al-Zahrawi is known for his innovations in surgery. He introduced numerous surgical techniques and instruments, some of which are still in use today. He described the use of catgut for internal stitching and introduced the concept of using dissolvable sutures.

Physicians employing a surgical method. From Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu's Imperial Surgery (1465).

 Among the many surgical instruments he designed, Al-Zahrawi is credited with the invention of several tools, including forceps, scalpels, and surgical hooks. His contributions revolutionised the field, laying the foundation for modern surgical practices.

Surgical instruments described by al-Zahrawi.

Al-Zahrawi's understanding of pain management in surgery was evident in his discussions on the use of opium as a form of anesthesia, revealing an advanced awareness of patient comfort during medical procedures.

Manuscript describing surgical instruments of Al-Zahrawi

Beyond surgical innovations, Al-Zahrawi delved into pharmacology, compiling valuable information on various drugs and their applications in treating diseases, contributing significantly to the understanding of medicinal properties.

An imaginary drawing for Al-Zahrawi derived from Syrian postage issued in 1964.

In the realm of women's health, Al-Zahrawi made strides in obstetrics and gynecology, offering insights into childbirth, fertility, and various aspects of women's healthcare.

Caesarean section as illustrated in the Manuscript of al-Bīrūnī, Al-Athār al-Bāqiyah `an al-Qurūn al-Khāliyah, MS 161, Edinburgh University.

Al-Zahrawi emphasized the importance of hands-on experience in medical education, advocating for practical training in addition to theoretical knowledge.

A doctor treats wounds in this 12th-century illustration from the Maqamat, a collection of Islamic tales.

Al-Zahrawi’s works, translated into Latin, played a crucial role in shaping European medical education during the Middle Ages. This influence contributed significantly to the evolution of Western medicine.

Frontispiece of the Latin translation of al-Zahrawi's Kitab al-Tasrif.

Kitab Al-Tafsir was the book that gave Al-Zahrawi lasting authority in Europe as it was the first illustrated surgical guide ever written, and it remained the primary source on surgery in Europe for the next 500 years.

Two pages from a manuscript of Al-Zahrawi’s Al-Tasrif, preserved at the Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences, Baku

Al-Zahrawi's contributions to ophthalmology included detailed descriptions of eye diseases and innovative surgical techniques for treating eye conditions, showcasing his expertise in multiple medical disciplines.

An Arabic manuscript, dated 1200CE, titled Anatomy of the Eye, authored by al-Mutadibih.

In dentistry, Al-Zahrawi outlined methods for tooth extraction and addressed dental ailments in his medical encyclopedia, contributing to the broader understanding of oral health.

Cauterization to treat a toothache

Recognizing the importance of cleanliness, Al-Zahrawi emphasized hygiene practices in medical procedures, laying the groundwork for infection prevention and patient recovery.

10th-century Surgeon Al-Zahrawi performing surgery, 1001 Inventions

Honored globally, Al-Zahrawi's legacy persists in many medical universities and institutions. His contributions are studied in medical history courses, ensuring that future generations recognize his impact on the field.

Miniature painting depicting Surgeons performing surgery

Al-Zahrawi's approach to medicine was rooted in humanitarian values. He emphasized compassion and care in treating patients, reflecting a patient-centric philosophy that remains relevant today.

Acknowledged by medical and surgical societies worldwide, Al-Zahrawi's pioneering contributions have earned him global recognition, solidifying his status as a luminary in the history of medicine.

Despite living over a thousand years ago, Al-Zahrawi's teachings and innovations remain relevant, and his legacy continues to inspire medical professionals worldwide.

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