Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

Ibn Abi Usaibia, History of Physicians (1971).  Preface to the online edition.

Muwaffaqaddin Abū 'l `Abbās A. ibn al-Qasim ibn abi Usaibi`a as-Sa`di al-Khazragi, better known as Ibn Abi Usaibia, was born sometime after 1194 AD (590 AH) in Damascus, where his father was an opthalmologist.  The few details of his life that are known to us come from his own work, or brief mentions by contemporaries.[1]

He studied medicine in his native town, and then as an opthalmologist at the Nasiri hospital in Cairo, where he received special tuition from the physician and botanist Ibn al-Baitār. In 1233 (631) he was one of the staff at Saladin's newly founded hospital in Cairo, but in 1234 he went to Bimaristan an-Nuri at Damascus and in 1236 he became the chief physician for the Emir `Izzadīn Aidamur ibn `Abdallah at Sarhad near Damascus.  He died in January 1270. [2]

His father and uncle already belonged to medical circles, and he was closely associated with Abd'l Latif, the friend of his family.[1]

Two recensions exist of his great compendium, the "Tabaqat al-atibba'" or "`Uyunu al-Anba fi Tabaquat al- Atibba" ("Sources of Information on the Classes of Physicians" or "Essential information on the Classes of Physicians").  The first was composed in 1241, and a second edition with some additions was edited by A. Müller in 1884. [3]

The book is the most complete history of medicine in the Near East.  It is particularly valuable because it quotes long extracts from earlier writers, including some statements by the 2nd century medical writer Galen about Jews and Christians which have not been otherwise preserved.  It even mentions a work of Galen, On Grief, which is of the greatest value for the history of libraries in Rome, and which was only rediscovered in the last few years.  It gives us much material by Hunain ibn Ishaq, including his own account of his misfortunes, and it discusses the people active in the translation movement of Greek science into Arabic.

Ibn Abi Usaibia also composed a work entitled Monuments of the nations and history of the learned, as he tells us in the introduction to his History.  Unfortunately the work has not survived.[1]

Translations of portions of the work have been made by various people.  There are also unpublished English translations of sections of the chapter on Galen in the Royal College of Medicine in London, for instance.  But no complete English translation has ever been published.

In 2011, while searching the web, I became aware of a mysterious item "in 4 volumes" at the United States National Library of Medicine.[5]  Some enquiries revealed that this was most likely a complete translation of Ibn Abi Usaibia.  However it was difficult to be sure, without seeing it.  I took the plunge, therefore, and asked the library by email if I could purchase a copy of the typescript.  Sadly I was unable to obtain a copy in this way, despite some months of futile correspondence.

Fortunately a fellow-blogger, Douglas Galbi of, a scientific blog, became interested in the manuscript after reading some notes about the typescript on my blog. He travelled down to the library on his own account, and was able to photograph the whole manuscript with a digital camera.  He then wrote to me to confirm that it was indeed a complete translation.  More than that, at my request he very kindly sent a DVD containing the photographs to me, so that I could OCR them and place them online.  I would like to express my sincere thanks to him for his public-spirited generosity, tact and for undertaking the sheer hard work of hand copying so many pages. He has also written some blog posts on the work.

The title page indicated that it was made at US government expense by "L. Kopf", who is doubtless the orientalist Lothar Kopf, head of the Oriental department of the University Library at Jerusalem, who died in 1964 [6].  Being a US government commission, it is public domain.  Another unpublished item in the library is a translation of The Book of Medicine of Asaph the physician, the oldest Hebrew medical text, made at the same time under the same programme by Sussman Muntner and Fred Rosner, although this is outside the scope of this collection.  It would be interesting to know why the US government commissioned these items; and, indeed, whether any other translations were made.  I would like to thank the US National Library of Medicine for preserving these curious items, and especially for making information about them accessible on the web. 

The typescript of Ibn Abi Usaibia comprises 946 pages, although it omits various incidental bits of poetry by the author.  In addition some 62 pages of notes were added at a subsequent time by M. Plessner in Jerusalem, who seems to have typed the "title pages", which bear the date 1971.  It may be presumed that the item remained in the Jerusalem office after Kopf's death and was sent in to the library by Plessner.   The typescript was accessioned by the library in 1971, and seems to have remained unknown to scholarship ever since.  It appears online today for the first time.  I hope that this will promote interest in this undeservedly obscure work.

The typescript text includes overscores (e.g. Abū rather than Abu), and also sub-linear dots on t, s and sometimes other letters.  The overscores have been retained, but the sub-linear dots have nearly always been ignored.  While the latter are important in transcribing Arabic, they form no part of a normal English translation, and the effort to include them would be excessive.  In some cases the typescript, being unrevised, does not include overscores, where in other places it does.  Some typos have been corrected silently where they were evident and uncontroversial.

Roger Pearse
20th December, 2011

Postscript (15th June, 2018).  Over the years since I uploaded this, I have come across occasional indications that the translation is not in fact complete.  From Jessika Khazrik, Who knows where: a treatise on indisciplinary thinking, MIT 2017 (thesis), p.60 n.112 (online here):

112. This translation of A History of Physicians was found posthumously in the office of the Lothar Kopf, the head of the Oriental department of the University Library at Jerusalem, who died in 1964. It was commissioned by US government and was only transferred to the US National Library of Medicine as manuscript in 1971. A science blogger, Roger Pearse has taken the labor of transcribing it and sharing it online as public domain. Despite stating that it is a full translation of 4 volumes of the book, when comparing with the Arabic printed edition I have been studying, I found more than 8 pages on Ibn Al-Haytham's life missing.

The reader should therefore beware.

Postscript (14th January, 2023).  I am delighted to learn that a complete modern edition of the Arabic, with a scholarly English translation, was published by Brill a couple of years ago: E. Savage-Smith, S. Swain, G.J. van Gelder eds., A Literary History of Medicine, Leiden: Brill (2020).  There is an online edition of it at the Brill site.  The English can be found here

[1] Also see L. Leclerc, Histoire de la médecine arabe (1876), vol 2, p.187-93.  (Google books US only)

[2]  GAL 1st ed., vol. 1, p.325-6; 2nd ed. vol. 1, p.398-9.

[3]  August Müller, Uyunu al-Anba fi Tabaquat al- Atibba, Cairo, 1882. 2 vols.  For more details on the recensions see: ZDMG 34, p.471; Travaux du VIe congr. intern. d. or. à Leide II, 218 ff.; SBBA, phil.-hist. Cl. 1884, p. 857 ff.  (Details from the GAL)

[4] Plinio Prioreschi, A history of medicine: Byzantine and Islamic medicine, 2001, p.201.

[5] The "The English translations of History of Physicians (4 v.) and The Book of Medicine of Asaph the Physician (2 v.) originally written by Ahmad ibn al-Qasim ibn Ab i Usaybi'ah, 1971".  The shelfmark is "MS C 294".  The library "finding aid" contains a number of further details, such as "Extent: 0.84 linear feet (2 boxes)" and "Prefered Citation: Ibn Abi Usaybi'ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translations of History of Physicians (4 v.) and The Book of Medicine of Asaph the Physician (2 v.) originally written by Ahmad ibn al-Qasim ibn Abi Usaybi'ah. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294."  The "volumes" are actually folders.  Both items were accessioned in 1971.

[6] Edward Ullendorff, review of "M. H. Goshen-Gottstein: Studies in Arabic and Hebrew Lexicography by Lothar Kopf" in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 41 (1978), pp. 586-587.  "At the time of his poignantly premature death, Kopf was head of the Oriental department of the University Library at Jerusalem."

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page

This text was written by Roger Pearse, 2011. This file and all material on this page is in the public domain - copy freely.

Early Church Fathers - Additional Texts