Galen dominates Greeks in Ibn Abi Usaibia's History of Physicians

In the thirteenth century GC, Damascus-based physician Ibn Abi Usaibia wrote a book on “classes of physicians.”  It consisted of “essential information” concerning the lives and writings of physicians, as well as “some savants and philosophers who studied and practiced medicine,” from the origin of medicine to Ibn Abi Usaibia’s present.[*]  While by modern convention Ibn Abi Usaibia’s book is called History of Physicians, that book in its time seems to have been understood to help constitute the present profession of physicians. History of Physicians is a trans-historical record of medical profession membership and status.

Galen of Pergamon dominates among Greek figures in History of Physicians.  References to Galen measure 0.55 on an authority index in which references to Allāh / God measure one.  The three next most frequently referenced Greek figures are Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Plato.  They have authority indices of 0.26, 0.22, and 0.10, respectively.  Galen himself emphasized the authority of Hippocrates.  Hence the relatively frequent references to Hippocrates are partly an effect of Galen’s authority. Aristotle, who wrote extensively on anatomy, taxonomy, and philosophy, is a much bigger figure than Galen in modern Western classical studies.  But references to Aristotle in History of Physicians are less than half as frequent as references to Galen.  Other Greek physicians who achieved prominence in their days, such Plistonicus, Heraclides, Pedanius Dioscorides, Rufus of Ephesus, and Oribasius, are very infrequently mentioned.

History of Physicians emphasizes written work.  It nearly uniformly lists the written works of each physician.  History of Physicians has relatively little information about specific medical treatments, techniques, and medicines.  Symbolic competition with high social influence tends to produce highly concentrated popularity distributions (blockbusters / celebrities). The dominance of Galen among Greek figures suggests that competition for attention to written work within active social networks was a primary driver of physicians’ reputations.

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Statistics and source:

Here are token frequency distributions for Ibn Abi Usaibai’s History of Physicians (Excel version).  Those token distributions could not have been compiled without Roger Pearse‘s enormous labors to produce a machine-readable transcription of the English translation below.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.


[*] In the book’s preface, Ibn Abi Usaibia calls it “`Uyunu al-Anba fi Tabaquat al- Atibba.”  Kopf translates this as “Essential Information Concerning the Classes of Physicians.”  Regarding the term translated as “Essential Information,” Kopf notes, ‘Most scholars have wrongly translated this as “Sources of Information.”‘  See HP p. 3 and footnote 15 to HP Chapters 1-5.  At HP p. 942, the title of the book is translated as “Important Information Concerning the Classes of Physicians.”  Other thirteenth-century physicians refer to the book as Ibn Abi Usaibia’s book concerning the classes of physicians.  See HP pp. 730, 763, 899. The book’s chapter titles echo the term “classes of physicians,” emphasizing its thematic importance.

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