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Catalogue: Medical Monographs

Blue arrow pointing to the right A Note on Ophthalmology

While nearly every medical compendium had a chapter on the topic of ophthalmology, the most comprehensive coverage was to be found in the large number of monographs devoted solely to eye diseases. It was a subject in which medieval Islamic writers displayed considerable originality.

Virtually every ophthalmological manual would begin with a chapter on the anatomy of the eye. Then would follow chapters on eye diseases arranged in sequence relating to the locus of the condition: [1] diseases of the external parts, comprising those of the eyelids (always the largest section) and the canthi (mostly lacrimal abscesses and fistula); [2] diseases of the middle parts, comprising those of the conjunctiva (the second largest category), cornea (ulcers, pustules, corneal scars, drying of cornea), iris, and pupil (a category including cataracts); [3] diseases of the body of the eye, which included squint, atrophy, and protruberance; [4] diseases of the visual faculty, including dimness, nightblindness, snowblindness, avoidance of bright light, and mixing up of visions (seeing phantoms); [5] conditions relating to the humours or fluids, comprising diseases of the aqueous humour, crystalline humour (lens), and vitreous; and [6] diseases relating to the remaining parts, which included the tunics of the eye and the optic nerve. In addition, recipes for compound remedies were given for nearly every eye disease or affliction, and the physician was instructed to begin with drug therapy and progress to surgery only when that failed.

NLM has four important manuscripts concerned with ophthalmology and vision.

There is an important fragment of a treatise on deficiencies of vision and their treatment by the 11th-century Andalusian physican Ibn Wāfid al-Lakhmī (d. 1074/467). This is the only preserved copy of a treatise that until recently was thought to be lost (MS A 3/II item 3).

For reasons as yet unknown, there was during the 12th and 13th centuries an unprecedented interest in composing Arabic treatises on ophthalmology. Amongst the numerous ophthalmology manuals produced at that time was one composed in Cairo by Fat al-Dīn (ibn ‘Uthmān ibn Hibat Allāh) al-Qaysī (d. 1258/657), who dedicated his ophthalmological manual to the Egyptian Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-Salih II Najm al-Dīn Ayyub, who ruled from 1240 to 1249. A copy is contained in NLM MS A 48.

Later, in the 14th century, another Egyptian, adaqah ibn Ibrāhīm al-Shadhilī, composed an ophthalmological manual titled al-‘Umdah al-kulīyah fī al-amrā al-baarīyah (The Ophthalmological Principle in Ocular Diseases) which contains some interesting evidence of the level and frequency of ocular surgery in his day. An important copy is NLM MS A 29.1.

Much later, possibly in the 17th century, an otherwise unknown Ibrāhīm ibn Abī ālib ibn ‘Alī al-anafī also wrote a treatise on eye diseases of which NLM has the only known copy (MS A 23).

For further reading on the history of ophthalmology in the Islamic world, see Max Meyerhof, "The History of Trachoma Treatment in Antiquity and During the Arabic Middle Ages", Bulletin of the Ophthalmological Society of Egypt, XXIX (1936) pp. 26-87; Sadeq Sajjadi, "Casm-pezeški, ophthalmology" in EncIr, vol. 5, pp. 39-44; and Fuat Sezgin, ed., Augenheilkunde im Islam: Texte, Studien und Übersetzungen, 4 vols., Frankfurt am Main 1986. The latter are four volumes of reprints of important studies on Islamic ophthalmology. See also, Gül Russell, "The emergence of physiological optics," in Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, ed. Roshdi Rashed, 3 vols., London 1996, vol. II, pp. 672-715; and E. Savage-Smith, "Oftalmologia" in Storia della Scienza, Vol. 5, Islam, Cap. 64 (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 2002).

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