This is a rare opportunity to see the Royal College of Physicians' fascinating collection of Islamic medical manuscripts and objects, which are being exhibited to the public for the first time along with additional manuscripts on loan from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Gonville and Caius College Library, Cambridge. All of the objects on display are incredibly beautiful in themselves, divorced from their context, but the exhibition brilliantly explains the historical background, so that the manuscripts chart the progression of both clinical and theoretical medicine in the late antique and medieval periods in Islamic culture, as well as advances that were made in western medicine due to influences from the east.  

The exhibition naturally begins with Galen, who lived around 129–216 AD and who is often considered the most influential figure in the history of medicine. Although he did not first come up with the theory, he extensively classified Hippocrates' humoral pathology from On the Nature of Man, which was the theory that the human body and its ailments could be classified into four 'humors' – fire (yellow bile), earth (black bile), water (phlegm) and air (blood). Because his work was so prevalent in medical curricula at the time, his writing was widely translated into Syriac and Arabic; this is fortunate, the exhibition's captions inform us, because it means many works have been preserved that would have otherwise been irrevocably lost. One of the most interesting objects on display is a beautiful folio from a 14th or 15th century manuscript of Galen's On Simple Drugs, which was translated in the workshop of Humayn ibn Ishaq, and is in a remarkable North African Magribi script.

Another great figure is the Persian intellectual Avicenna ibn Sina, who lived in the late 10th and early 11th centuries and, similarly, composed a complete medical encyclopaedia in five books called The Canon of Medicine, or Al-Qanun fi l-tibb. A 13th century copy of Book 1 is on display here, and is remarkable because although it is written throughout in Arabic, it contains incredibly detailed Latin annotations that have been written in a hand from the late medieval or Renaissance period – conclusive proof if there was any of the influence Arabic writings had on Western medicine. Indeed, the Canon became so popular in the west that Gerard of Cremona translated it into Latin in the 12th century. There is also a manuscript of Ibn al-Nafis's Commentary on the Anatomy of the Canon, alongside the codex of William Harvey's Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus. Harvey is most renowned for discovering the pulmonary transit in the body – explaining how blood is pumped through the veinal system from the heart, rather than through an opening in the septum, in the 17th century. However this display highlights how he was so far prefigured by Ibn al-Nafis, who wrote a very similar treatise on the pulmonary transit four centuries earlier; he has written laysa…hada l-manfadu – "this opening [in the septum] does not exist".

Perhaps my favourite part of this exhibition, however, was the selection of anatomical diagrams showing the bone and veinal systems from both Arabic and English manuscripts. There are illustrations, for example, from a 13th century English medical miscellany (Bodleian, MS Ashmole 399) displayed alongside drawings from Mansur's Anatomy (Tasrih-i Mansuri), a 14th century Persian manuscript of Mansur ibn Ilyas. The figures in all of the anatomical illustrations are incredibly similar; their stance is striking, as they appear to be in a perpetual squatting position, bald-headed and facing the viewer straight-on. It appears here that the Royal College is implying that it was Latin-Arabic cross-communication in the medical field that caused the illustrators to portray the figures in the same way, but there is also of course the possibility that this is due to the positioning of the corpses they were drawing from – presumably the cadavers would have been lain down in similar ways prior to dissection. Either way, it is an interesting and perhaps unexpected similarity.

Finally, the section on magic and divination in medieval and renaissance medicine was fascinating, but could have benefited from more objects and space devoted to it. There is one rather large and elaborate diagram, the Horoscope of Johannes containing a collection of astrological lore from 1538, which included – as was usual at the time – his medical history as according to the stars. As neither the Royal College nor myself are aware who 'Johannes' actually was, whether or not these predictions came to fruition will remain an eternal mystery.

This is a relatively small exhibition, but the works on display are all so beautiful and intellectually stimulating in equal measure that it is definitely a must-see. The show gives a rare insight into both the eastern and western history of medicine, and how they were so inherently interconnected during what was a highly progressive time for both theoretical and clinical medical development.

Medicine in Islam, at Royal College of PhysiciansAshitha Nagesh's review of The mirror of health: discovering medicine in the golden age of Islam at the Royal College of Physicians.4