Hospitals owe debt to Islam

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The Independent Online

Modern medicine owes much to the scholars of the medieval Islamic world, who pioneered the diagnosis and treatment of human disease, a science historian told the conference.

The very first hospitals were built around AD800 in Baghdad and they were much more sophisticated than the simple monastic hospices that grew up in Western Europe several hundred years later, said Emilie Savage-Smith of St Cross College in Oxford.

The largest Islamic hospitals were built in Egypt and Syria in the 12th and 13th centuries. Patients were treated in wards dedicated to different illnesses, such as gastrointestinal complaints, eye ailments and fevers. "The establishment of an extensive system of hospitals was one of the greatest achievements of medieval Islamic society. It was in the context of these hospitals that the teaching of medicine at bedside was first introduced by Arabic-speaking physicians of the 10th century," Dr Savage-Smith said.

"In Islam there is a moral imperative to treat all the ill regardless of their financial status. These hospitals were open to all, male and female, civilian and military, rich and poor, Muslims and non- Muslims." The hospitals had several purposes: as a centre of medical treatment, a convalescent home for those recovering from illness or accident, an insane asylum and a retirement home giving basic maintenance needs for the aged and infirm who lacked a family to care for them.

As well as translating and interpreting the works of classical Greek medicine, Islamic scholars wrote a vast medical reference library to understand disease, pain, injuries and childbearing.They described infectious diseases such as smallpox and eye conditions such as catar-acts and successfully did minor operations such as tonsillectomies.

For a thousand years, Islamic physicians kept alive the traditions of classical medicine from Greece and Rome.