Monday, February 16, 2009


It's always fun to discover the ancient roots behind modern medical practices, terminology, etc. Here is a passage from my cognitive science textbook Psychology of Behavior on the origin of the terms "Dura Mater" and "Pia Mater" to refer to two of the layers of the meninges:
A tenth-century Persian physician, Ali ibn Abbas, used the Arabic term al umm to refer to the meninges. The term literally means "mother" but was used to designate any swaddling material, because Arabic lacked a specific term for the word membrane. The tough outer one was called al umm al djafiya, and the soft inner one was called al umm al rigiga. When the writings of Ali ibn Abbas were translated into Latin during the eleventh century, the translator, who was probably not familiar with the structure of the meninges, made a literal translation of al umm. He referred to the membranes as the "hard mother" and the "pious mother" (pious in the sense of "delicate") rather than using a more appropriate Latin word.

People often forget the non-Western origins of many medical practices. Ancient India was famous for its medical skills, particularly cataract surgery. The Middle and Far East had many renowned medical practitioners and scholars. Many medical texts from the Islamic empires were translated to Latin and used up until the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, medical knowledge in Europe was quite stagnant after Galen - it was practically heresy to question Galen's texts, and in the autopsy theaters the medical doctor would be on a pedestal, reciting from Galen, while a lowly barber would be dissecting a body below. Whenever anatomical differences occurred between an actual human body and Galen's descriptions and drawings, it was assumed that the body was deformed. Most of Galen's anatomical knowledge came from animal extrapolation, since human dissection had been taboo in Europe for the longest time. So, while the rest of the world was advancing and exploring medical knowledge, the "civilized" world held Galen's texts from ~200 CE as indisputable.

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