Avicenna’s medical thinking in colonial Mexico

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New Spain was a viceroyalty of Spain between 1521 and 1821. In these three centuries, the practice and the teaching of medicine had a great influence from Arabian medicine, and in this way, the thinking of Avicenna and his followers.

Key words: Medicine, Arabs, Avicenna, New Spain., Mexico.

New Spain was a viceroyalty, part of the great Spanish empire during three centuries, from 1521 to 1821. When Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec kingdom, began a new life into the medicine, because European medicine was mixed with aboriginal.

The Spanish science, in that time, was mostly medieval, and so, was medicine. The medical, surgical and pharmacological practices were in delay if we compare it with the northern medicine of Europe. (1) Surely all Spanish physicians who crossed the ocean carried in their luggage the essential bibliographical material for their profession, all of them faithful  to the knowledge of Avicenna. In the same books that edited Mexican presses we can know which one was.

Francisco Bravo, who arrived in New Spain after he had studied in Alcalá de Henares and Osuna universities, in Spain, wrote the first medical book edited in America, named Opera medicinalia (1), and cite, between others, authors like Galen, Avicenna, Rhazes, Hippocrates, Thucydides, Valles and Fracastoro. The works of Galen, Hippocrates and Avicenna were indispensable books for all medical doctors, and were edited many times.

About the works from Avicenna that came to New Spain, we have a few notices. Avicenna was an author cited for all who wrote medical books in the Viceroyalty, and at the same time, it is rare the book from Renaissance that didn’t include the Avicenna theories in its texts.

Bravo didn’t say which of the Avicenna editions consulted although he pointed treatises and chapters of the work Canon, the most well-known book from Avicenna was, between XVI century Spanish medical doctors, an important work of consult, that was interpreted and informed in medical schools, simultaneously with Galen and Hippocrates.

There were many editions, but incunabula were twenty, almost elaborated about the classical translation from Gerard of Cremona, in the XII century.

At the beginnings of the XVI century, in 1523 was published at Venice Praesens maximus codex est totius scientiae medicine principis Alboali Abinsene, monumental typographical work, and the most commented edition from the Persian physician, in whose interpretation supervised the most noted Italian doctors of that times. It was an important book and arrived to almost Spain medical centers. A copy of this work was used in the ceremonies at Alcalá de Henares to point out the themes for the grade exam.

During the XVI century there were in Spain the Epitome or Compendium from Avicenna that was drafted by Miguel Capella, and Prima primi canonis Avicena section, written by Miguel Jerónimo de Ledesma, Valencian lecturer, that although only translated and commented the first book from the Arabian author, was successful.

Probably this two works arrived to New Spain, for the teaching of medicine at the Royal and Pontifical University, founded in 1553, and its Faculty of Medicine, that opened his doors in 1582.

At the middle of the XX century Dr. José Joaquín Izquierdo, a very distinguished Mexican physician, found in the National Library of Mexico, which is managed by the National Autonomous University of Mexico actually, a copy of Liber canonis de medicines cordialibus et cantica, from Avicenna, edited by Joan Hervagios in 1556. The existence of this book in Mexico could illustrate about the “Avicenna” used in the XVI century by New Spain’s doctors. Another book from Avicenna, Disputatione medicae, printed by Pedro García Carrero at Alcalá de Henares in Juan Graciani’s press, in 1611, was founded by Izquierdo, too, in the same Library.

Juan de Cárdenas in his work Primera parte de los problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias (3) (1591) is sparing in appointments, but he names the classics, Avicenna, between them.

Agustín Farfán wrote in 1592 Tractado Brebe de Medicina (4), and in this work he quoted Galen, Hippocrates, Rhazes and Avicenna, in an abstract tone and without interest.

The anatomy was studied on the works of Avicenna, complemented with the old authority of Galen, commented by Rhazes. Supported in the authority of the great philosopher and Arabian-Spanish scientist, Farfán said in his Tractado that the bones of the human body are 148, and the muscles 531. In addition, students should study, during the third year, the ninth book of Rhazes Almanzorem.

We have to remember that the medieval therapeutic methods were purges, cupping-glasses, draughts, plasters, cauterizations and various infusions. Then, in those times was used the called soliman water, to cauterize a sweet sublimate of mercury diluted in water, insipid and which first known prescription is founded in Summa perfectionis writed by  Geber, Arabian alchemist whose work was known by Avicenna, and too, in New Spain.

Another Islamic knowledge used by doctors in New Spain was the bezoar stone, effective antidote. In New Spain, Enrico Martínez, astronomer, but no physician, wrote Repertorio de los tiempos, y historia natural desta Nueva España (5) in 1606, and in the fourth chapter he treats about the applicability of astrology, and in his book he mentions Avicenna and his Canon.

By the sea, sometimes arrived to American coasts ships with boxes full of books; some works were forbidden by the Holy Inquisition, but some medical doctors had got some of them. In a list of the year 1576, Alonso Losa, a bookseller, received two copies of Exposición sobre las preparaciones de Mesue, published in 1569 by Antonio de Aguilera from Alcalá de Henares, in which the author explains the book of Juan Mesue, the Arabian physician whose works were used till the end of the XVIII century. Mesue is named with profusion in Juan de Barrios’ book, Verdadera medicina, cirugía y astrología (6), published in 1607.

There is another incunabula in the National Library of Mexico, that is a latin translation of the works of Serapione, Liber serapionis agregatus in medicines simplicibus translaton Symonis Ianuensis interprete Abraan iudeo tortuosiensi de arabico in latinum inquit Serapion, published in 1473 at Parma by Antonio Zarotum.

In 1648 Juan de Correa, an anatomist of the Real y Pontificia Universidad de México wrote Tratado de la qualidad manifiesta, que el mercurio tiene…(6), in which he treated about the life into the mines, and the poisoning with sulfur. To do this book, he read Avicenna and Geber.

In XVI century New Spain, the texts for the Faculty of Medicine were the books of Hippocrates, Galen, Ali Abbas, Hunain Ibn Ishaq, Avicenna, Rhazes, Averroes and Mesue. In the third year of studies the students had to study the ninth book of Ad almanzorem, from Rhazes.

Later, when medievalism was substituted for the modernism in the Spanish universities, they continued with the lectures from Avicenna. (7, 8)

To finish these notes, I will mention some ideas from the book Verdadera Medicina, Astrología y Cirugía (9), from Juan de Barrios, published in Mexico in 1606.

Juan de Barrios arrived to New Spain in 1590, after attending the universities of Alcalá, Salamanca and Valencia, and his work is, probably, the most important monument of New Spanish medicine, writing in dialogue form.

In the chapter number 17 of the third treatise of his book, de Barrios illustrates about the headache and hemicranias, saying that Avicenna thought that this disease was so terrible and ferocious that the joins of the head looked dilate, and it opened the head, and it was so tyrannical that sometimes it killed. (10)

When de Barrios treats about cataracts, in chapter 28, mentioning Avicenna, says that to heal it the physician must use warm and dry air, the patient must not drink wine, only cinnamon or honey water, and they can eat hen, kid, and they must not drink milk nor eat fish. (11)

So, I had expose briefly the influence and the utility of Arabian medicine and Avicenn’as thinking in America’s medicine, pointing out some of the authors that had more authority on physicians during the three centuries Colonial Mexico.


  1. Weckmann, Luis. La herencia medieval de México, II. El Colegio de México. México, 1984. Pp. 669-687.
  2. Bravo, Francisco. Opera medicinalia. Petrum Ocharte. Mexico, 1570.
  3. Cárdenas, Juan de. Primera parte de los problemas y secretos maravillosos de las Indias. Pedro Ocharte. México, 1591.
  4. Farfán, Agustín. Tratado breve de anothomia y cirugía. Antonio Ricardo. México, 1579.
  5. Martínez, Enrico. Repertorio de los tiempos, y historia natural de la Nueva España. Enrico Martínez, 1606.
  6. Correa, Juan de. Tratado de la qualidad manifiesta que el mercurio tiene. Hipólito de Ribera. México, 1648.
  7. Weckmann, op. cit.
  8. Fernández del Castillo, Francisco. La Facultad de Medicina según el Archivo de la Real y Pontificia Universidad de México. Imprenta Universitaria. México, 1953.
  9. Barrios, Juan de. Verdadera medicina, cirugía y astrología. Fernando Balli. México, 1607.
  10. Flores, Francisco. Historia de la medicina en México desde la época de los indios hasta la presente, vol. 2. México. Oficina Tipográfica de la Secretaría de Fomento. 1886, p. 95.
  11. Barrios, de. Op. cit.
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