Al-Zahrawi – The Pioneer of Modern Surgery


Muslim period of Spain’s history (also known as al-Andalus) was a Golden Age of Islamic civilization and society. Almost ultimate harmony between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism conquered, great advancements were made in the sciences, and wealth and stability were the rule rather than the exception.

One of the great figures of Muslim Spain was Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, Islam’s greatest medieval surgeon. He transformed how surgery was performed by inventing new methods and tools to help heal patients. His thirty-volume encyclopedia of medicine was used as a standard text for medicine throughout Europe for centuries. The impact he had on how medicine was practiced was truly revolutionary.


His most influential volume of al-Tasrif is the 30th, the one dedicated to surgery. In it, he explains in detail how to achieve certain surgeries to cure certain ailments. He insists in it that all surgeons must first be very well skilled in general medicine, anatomy, and even the writings of philosophers who studied medicine.

Al-Zahrawi founded many of the procedures and materials still used in operating rooms today. He was the first to use cord as the thread for internal stitches. Catgut is a thread made from the lining of the guts of animals. It is the only material that can be used for tacks and still be absorbed by the body, avoiding the need for a second surgery to remove internal stitches. He invented many tools necessary for modern surgery. He was the first to use forceps in childbirth, greatly decreasing the mortality rate of babies and mothers. He performed tonsillectomies with the same tongue depressors, hooks, and cutters used today. He used concealed knifes to cut into patients without making them apprehensive. He used both local and oral anesthesia in order to reduce the pain patients skilled during surgery. He performed mastectomies removing a woman’s breast if she had breast cancer, a procedure still done today. He described how to set bone fractures; amputate limbs, and even how to crush bladder stones. To describe all his “firsts” in medicine would take a book of its own.

An early inhaler invented by al-Zahrawi. At the top is the original Arabic while the Latin translation is at the bottom.

Despite his immense knowledge and ability, he always declined to do risky or unknown surgeries that would be stressful physically and emotionally for the patient. He believed in the importance of human life and sought to extend it as long as possible. His precedent was a prime example for effective bedside manner that all doctors should exhibit.



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