Not Rooted in Europe

On the occasion of the centennial of the American Academy of Periodontology (AAP) this year, Dr. Kenneth S. Kornman, Editor-in-Chief of AAP’s Journal of Periodontology, together with Paul B. Robertson and Ray C. Williams have worked on a long reading list [pdf] of scientific articles which have shaped modern periodontology. I shall return to the list later.

In a commentary [pdf], they mention Europe’s first University in Bologna in 1088 although they have to concede that,

“[T]he European university model with a focus on science and research emerged later in the 19th century [sic!], original observations in the sciences were presented to members of learned societies became the primary vehicle for discussion and transmission of knowledge, and in the mid 1600s the proceedings of scientific societies, such as the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, began publication.”

It is true that the first university in the sense of a higher-learning, degree-awarding institute was founded in Bologna and the word university had even been coined at its foundation. It is nevertheless superfluous to mention that when it comes to medicine at large or, in particular, our roots. The first medical school had been founded already long before in the south Italian city of Salerno. Based on the 9th century dispensary of a monastery, it became famous after the arrival of Constantine the African in 1077, an Arab physician and professor who introduced Arab medicine to Europe which he compiled and translated from Arabic sources. Although he became a Benedectine monk a couple of years after he had arrived in Salerno, his teachings were entirely based on knowledge and skills of Arabic physicians.

Two generations earlier, Persian polymath Ibn Sina or, as he is known in the West, Avicenna (980-1037), wrote his Al-Qanun fi t-tibb, or Canon of Medicine, which was translated into Latin in the 12th century and into Hebrew in the 1279 CE. It became the standard medical textbook of European Universities until the 17th century. Based on findings made in a German doctoral thesis of 2007 [pdf] on Ibn Sina’s contributions in dentistry I had suggested that Avicenna not only had introduced controlled experiments in medicine but possibly even systematic reviews since he had compiled in a thorough and interpreted in a most elegant way known wisdom of earlier Arabic sources.  It is most unlikely that Ibn Sina ever practiced dentistry, and whether he was actually The Physician (as suggested by Noah Gordon in his novel) must be questioned, too.

he Persian polymath-physician Avicenna appeared with his Greek forebears Galen and Hippocrates in this woodcut from an early 15th-century Latin medical book (from Covington R. Rediscovering Arabic science. SaudiAramco World 2007; 58(3)

The Persian polymath and physician Avicenna appears with his Greek forebears Galen and Hippocrates (woodcut from an early 15th-century Latin medical book). From Covington R. Rediscovering Arabic science. Saudi Aramco World 2007; 58(3)

The greatest medieval physician and father of modern surgery was, of course, Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-Abbas al-Zahrawi, or Abulcasis (936-1013).  In the thirty chapters of his Kitab at-Tasrif (Method of Medicine) he describes dozens of pioneering surgical techniques together with graphic illustrations of more than 200 surgical instruments including scalpels, cauterization tools, feeding tubes and cupping glasses. Many of them are still in use and some resemble even periodontal instruments such as scalers and curettes. Having been born in Cordoba, Spain, where he lived, taught and practiced for all of his life, he was the court physician of the Andalusian caliph al-Hakam II (d. 976), one of these famous patrons of knowledge in the Golden Age of Islam.

Carranza’s Clinical Periodontology has always had a nice chapter on history. Both medieval giants of the Islamic world are mentioned with due respect.

“The decline and fall of the Roman Empire that plunged Europe into an age of darkness was accompanied by the rise of Islam and the golden age of Arabic science and medicine. The Arabic treatises derived their information from Greek medical treatises but added many refinements and novel approaches, particularly in surgical specialities (reference to Shklar G. Stomatology and dentistry in the golden age of Arabian medicine. Bul Dent 1969; 17: 17).

Albucasis (936-1013) was born and lived in Moorish Spain, and his medical encyclopedia in 30 volumes, called als-Tasrif, was  translated into Latin in the twelfth century and was the medical text used in European universities until the seventeenth century. The contributions of Albucasis to dentistry and periodontology were outstanding achievements (reference to Albucasis. La Chirurgie. Paris: Bailliére; 1861) He had a clear understanding of the major etiologic role of calculus deposits and described the techniques of scaling the teeth, using a set of instruments that he developed (Figure 1-1), splinting loose teeth with gold wire, and filing gross occlusal abnormalities.

Avicenna (980-1037) was possibly the greatest of the Arabic [sic!] physicians. His Canon, a comprehensive treatise on medicine, was in continuous use for almost 600 years. Avicenna used an extensive “materia medica” for oral and periodontal diseases and rarely resorted to surgery (reference to Avicenna. Liber Canonis. Venice, 1507).”

4 January 2014 @ 12:15 pm.

Last modified January 7, 2014.


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