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The Canon: Essential Artillery of the Medieval Medical Student

The Canon: Essential Artillery of the Medieval Medical Student

By Khurram J. Khan and Shiraz Noor

University of Toronto Medical Journal, Vol 89, No 1 (2011)

Abstract: A historical review of The Canon of Medicine by Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina 980-1037 C.E.): This paper follows the trajectory of the Canon’s use in medical education in Europe, from its translation into Latin in the twelfth century to its long-standing status as an introductory textbook from the fifteenth century onward. The changing role of the Canon in university curricula, which is perhaps its greatest historical legacy, attests to its durability as a medical encyclopaedia—just one of the many consequences of its unprecedented comprehensiveness and organization.

Introduction: Formal medical education never witnessed a text as robust as The Canon of Medicine by the Arab physician and philosopher Avicenna. A reputable physician by the age of 21, Avicenna excelled in his many endeavours, which also included mathematics, poetry, and religious sciences. Among his many texts, The Canon is by far the most famous and its legacy cannot be given justice in this short paper alone. Its name, “The Canon,” came from the Arabic title “al-Qanun” meaning the law. A unique encyclopaedia of medicine, it codified classical medicine of the Greeks, and built the foundation of the modern system-based approach to studying medicine. It was organized into five books: Book One was an overview of contemporary medical theory, Book Two focused on pharmacology, Book Three on diseases described by organ systems like hepatology, Book Four on systemic conditions such as fever, and Book Five on treatments. Used in the first medical universities in history, it was years ahead of its time, proving to be relevant in education half a millennium after it was originally written.

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