A literary history of medicine: the best accounts of the classes of physicians

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The next seminar in the 2013-14 History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 19th November.


Folio from an Arabic translation of the Materia medica by Dioscorides (ca. 40-90 C.E.); recto: A physician treats a blindfolded man; verso: text 621 AH (1224) (S1986.97, Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Details: Emilie Savage-Smith (Oxford)

A Literary History of Medicine: The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270)


In the mid-13th century, a practising physician in Syria by the name of Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah set himself the task of recording the history of medicine throughout the known world. His book “The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians” covers 1700 years of medical practice, from the mythological beginnings of medicine with Asclepius through Greece, Rome, and India, down to the author’s day.

Written as much to entertain as to inform, it is not only the earliest comprehensive history of medicine but the most important and ambitious of the medieval period, incorporating accounts of over 442 physicians – their training, their practice, and their medical compositions – interlaced with amusing poetry and anecdotes illustrating the life and character of the physicians.

Written by a man who was himself a medic and a poet, this highly readable history reflects considerable medical experience and lies at the interface of the serious medical practice of the day with society’s interest in biography and gossip. A team has now been assembled, with the support of a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award in Medical Humanities, to edit and translate the entire treatise and make it available both to scholars and the general public.


The seminar will take place in the Wellcome Trust, Gibbs Building, 215 Euston Road, NW1 2BE.

Doors at 6pm prompt, seminars will start at 6.15.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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