Al-Razi: The Persian Polymath

Contributed by Tameem Badwan, Class of 2019

Muhammad ibn Zakriya al-Razi, better known as Razi (or Rhazes) was a Persian “renaissance man” and a physician, alchemist, and philosopher. Born in 854 CE, he was alive during the Islamic Golden Age and was thought to have lived near what is now present day Iran.

He was one of the earliest proponents of experimental medicine, and actively practiced as chief physician of Baghdad. Razi is also credited as one of the first people to use the “four humors” to distinguish one contagious disease from another. He was ahead of his time in terms of healthcare and medicine, and is even said to have written a book about smallpox and measles in which he provides clinical characterizations of the diseases.

raziIn regards to pharmacy, Razi is said to have contributed in many ways, primarily by collecting and compiling texts in which he introduces the use of “mercurial ointments”. Mercurial ointments are ointments that utilized mercury, which was thought to possess many medicinal properties. Razi also contributed to the pharmaceutical profession by pioneering the use and development of tools such as mortars, flasks, spatulas, and phials, all of which were used in pharmacy until the early twentieth century.

Razi was also a strong believer in practicing medicine ethically. He attacked fake doctors and sellers of magic cures and potions. He tried to educate the public on the importance of questioning doctors, and often warned that even highly educated doctors did not have the answers to all medical problems and could not cure all sickness or heal every disease. This is important in regards to pharmacy because it is an issue that is emerging once again. With the emergence of the Pharm.D. degree, pharmacists are trying to educate the public that doctors are not the be all end all of medical treatment.

Razi was also interesting in the fact that he identified mental illness as a disease. Though he believed it was caused by demons. Razi was also a very successful author and is credited with many publications, including a medical book focused on pediatrics.

The impact of Razi on the pharmaceutical profession can still be seen today. Razi was one of the first to perfect various methods of distillation and extraction. Razi was also an avid alchemist, which can be seen as an earlier form of pharmaceutical compounding.

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