Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi

Ramin Sam
San Francisco, California, United States

Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (865–925)

While Europe languished in the Middle Ages, the Islamic world sustained and contributed to the scientific and mathematic knowledge accumulated by the Greeks. One of the most influential of these scientists was Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, otherwise known as Rasis or Rhazes. Born in Rey (near present-day Teheran) in 865, Rasis rose in ranks to become the chief director of a hospital there and also briefly held the same position in Baghdad. A physician and a learned scholar, Rasis contributed not only to medicine but also to the fields of chemistry, physics, biology, and philosophy.

Some of his most notable contributions to medicine include differentiating smallpox from measles, describing each disease in detail, and describing allergic asthma—all medical firsts. Considered one of the fathers of pediatrics, he wrote the first book on childhood disease. Also a pioneer in ophthalmology, he wrote several  books on the subject, before, ironically, developing complete blindness at the end of his life. He was an early proponent of experimental medicine at a time when the field of medicine was practiced by charlatans and fake doctors. During his lifetime he wrote numerous books on a variety of topics, his most famous ones being al-Hawi (The Virtuous Life) and Sirr Al-asrar (Secret of Secrets), a book on pharmacy.

The May 1970 bulletin of the World Health Organization states “[Rasis’] writings on smallpox and measles show originality and accuracy, and his essay on infectious disease was the first scientific treatise on the subject.”1 Michael E. Flannery, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of The Duchossois Group, wrote of him, “In today’s world we tend to see scientific advance as the product of great movements, massive grant-funded projects, and larger-than-life socioeconomic forces. It is easy to forget, therefore, that many contributions stemmed from the individual efforts of scholars like Rhazes. Indeed, pharmacy can trace much of its historical foundations to the singular achievements of this ninth-century Persian scholar.”1


  1. Wikipedia, The free encyclopedia, s.v. “Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi,” accessed August 17, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_ibn_Zakariya_al-Razi.

RAMIN SAM, MD, San Francisco General Hospital

Summer 2012



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