University of Minnesota
School of Physics & Astronomy

History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Friday, February 23rd 2018
Speaker: Nahyan Fancy, Department of History, DePauw University
Subject: "Did Humoral Theory Undergo any Changes in Post-Avicennan Medicine? Examples from the Commentaries of Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288) and his Successors in Western Eurasia"
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

It has long been maintained that Galenic/Hippocratic humoral theory reigned supreme in Islamic societies from when Greek medical texts were translated into Arabic in the ninth century till the arrival of European colonial powers in the nineteenth. Historians have provided various explanations for the persistence of humoral theory in Islamic societies ranging from the (alleged) religious prohibition against dissection to a predisposition amongst medical writers towards systematizing and summarizing rather than critical inquiry. Yet, medical writers engaged critically with medical theory in their commentaries on the Canon of Medicine and the Epitome. The leading figure in this critical engagement was Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288). Underlying his modification of humoral theory was a sustained critique of the Galenic physiological and anatomical understanding of digestion. Consequently, the paper provides evidence for Ibn al-Nafīs conducting anatomical observations on dead animals. Moreover, the fact that his new proposals were debated and accepted by later Islamic physicians counters the prevalent assumption that his works were ignored in the later period, and thus raises the distinct possibility that these new ideas on the humors and digestion were appropriated by Renaissance physicians such as Jean Fernel.

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