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History of Science and Medicine | Europe and the Ottoman World: Diplomacy and International Relations

Albucasis - Liber de cirurgia

In 1010, the city of Cordoba in Andalusia was sacked and plundered during civil war. Amidst the devastation, the palace of Medina Azahara was looted and many of the books held in the palace library were lost or destroyed.  

One manuscript that managed to survive however, was the Kitāb al-tasrif. Written only ten years before the civil war by Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn ʻAbbās al-Zahrāwī (latinised as "Albucasis"), personal physician to caliph Abdul Rahman III, it was the first ever comprehensive guide to practical surgery. 

In the Kitāb al-tasrif, Albucasis described surgical procedures in detail, including several completely novel treatments, and used beautiful colour illustrations of surgical instruments, many of which he had invented. The gruesome nature of surgery in the early twelfth century was revolutionised by his work and as its influence grew, the original thirty-volume work was reproduced and translated into both Latin and French.

Entitled Liber de Cirurgia in Latin, this item is dated c.1300 and is particularly significant as a fully complete and early edition of the final volume, On Surgery. Widely considered to be the most influential volume of the work, it describes innovative operations including Albucasis’s remarkable contribution on extracting bladder stones using forceps rather than an instrument that previously scooped the stone out of the bladder. Developments like this resulted in far fewer risks and fatalities. 

Albucasis attributed the basis of the Liber de Cirurgia to the classical works of Galen, Hippocrates, and in particular Paulus Aegineta. What made his work particularly original however, was its instructional style and Albucasis’s use of personal case records and observations, setting him aside from his predecessors and demonstrating his expertise as a practicing surgeon. It also elucidates why he was commonly recognised as the medieval authority on surgery and why his work continued to exert influence throughout Europe for over five hundred years.

This manuscript is one of the rarest items held in the Arcadian Library with only twenty-seven manuscripts known to still exist.

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Cumston, C. G., 1926. An Introduction to the History of Medicine: From the time of the Pharaohs to the end of the XVIII century. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., London [Online].

Elgohary, M. A., 2006. Al Zahrawi: The Father of Modern Surgery. Annals of Pediatric Surgery. Vol.2 No.2 April 2006. PP. 82-87 [Online].

Spink, S. and G. L. Lewis, 1973. Albucasis On Surgery and Instruments: A definitive edition of the Arabic text with English translation and commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press [Online].