Wednesday, September 16, 2015

1070-1162: Avenzoar mentions the Bezoar Stones

A rare Benzoar Stone probably from a goat or camel
This one is dated from the 17th or 18th century.
Photo from
While medicine was at its peek amid the Arabians at the beginning of the 10th century, many patients feared to seek the help of a physician because they were so prone to poison their patients.  It was because of this fear that Avenzoar (1091-1161) was the first physician ever to mention the Benzoar Stone.

Avenzoar was born Abou Merwan ben Ardel Melek ben Zohr, or Ibn Zuhr. Thomas Bradford, in his book "Quiz questions on the history of medicine, said the following about him. 
Of his personal history nothing is known, except that he was a man of noble mind as a practitioner, and possessed a liberal, dignified and enlightened spirit, and gained the respect and love of his fellow countrymen. He is now considered to have been the most eminent of all the Arabian surgical writers. He wrote a very celebrated work on the operations of surgery, also a work on the art of healing. This last was a synopsis of the medical practice of the day, and was made up of quotations from previous medical writers. But the work on surgery is his most important work. At the time of Albucasis (936-1013) surgery was almost a lost art among the Arabs.(1, page 70)
 Bradford continues:
(Avenzoar) lived in the magnificent capital, Seville. He was born near Seville, about 1070. He was said to have been the most renowned physician and surgeon after the learned Avicenna. His father and grandfather were renowned physicians, and from them he inherited his medical knowledge and skill. His son was a physician after him. Avenzoar began the study of medicine at an early age, his father, Abd-el-Melek beginning to teach him when he was ten years old. When he had finished his course in Seville, his father bound him by an oath never to administer poisons. In that day poisoning was among the Saracens a fine art, and would have delighted a De Quincey. He was a very learned man. He was an accomplished scholar and linguist, being familiar with Hebrew, Syriac and the Arabic languages. His reputation extended over the whole land, and he was in correspondence with the most celebrated physicians of his time, by whom he was considered to be a second Hippocrates. He was also known as a philosopher and poet. He was physician to Ali ben Temin, king of Seville. He performed a brilliant cure on the brother of the king, who was count of the royal stables. As a reward, he was cast into prison, where he remained until released by Joseph ben Tachefyn, prince of Morocco, who drove Ali, with a horde of other small tyrants, out of Spain.
Bradford continued to explain that, as with other Arabian physicians of the era, he lead a tumultuous life, even spending some time in prison.  Yet this doesn't necessarily mean he was a bad person, only that he, at times, disagreed with someone of the ruling class, such as the sultan.

Given that his father was a physician, Avenzoar learned much of his medical knowledge from him.  He later did the same for his own son, who also became a physician. Bradford said Avenzoar shared his wisdom through his book " Teisser," or "The Introduction." Of this work, Bradford said: (1, pages 70-71)
This work treats of the remedies and diet for most of the diseases (and probably asthma too) which were then known.  From it we learn that Avenzoar at one time had charge of a hospital. (1, page 71)
Bradford said he also wrote another book called the Antidotarium "containing the methods of preparing medicines and diet."  (1,page 71)

While he may mention asthma in his book, the fact that no historian visibly mentions this book is probably proof that he added nothing new regarding our disease.

As is typical of this era, in order to gain respect among the community he had to gain the respect of the ruling class. Likewise helping his reputation must have been that people trusted that he would not poison them.

Bradford said that Avenzoar was a respected physician, surgeon, and pharmacist. He typically prescribed what we'd refer to as rational remedies, and was opposed to quack medicine, such as the healing powers of astrology (something that was popular in this region of the world since the days of Babylon). (1,page 71)

Despite these truths, he did still believe in charms and amulets.  So this may explain why it was through Avenzoar that people learned of the powers of Bezoar Stones,which, according to, were: (1, pages 71- 72)(2)
A hard indigestible mass of material, such as hair, vegetable fibers, or fruits, found in the stomachs or intestines of animals, especially ruminants, and humans. It was formerly considered to be an antidote to poisons and to possess magic properties. (2)
Perhaps due to his ability to avoid poisons he lived to the year 1162, passing at the ripe old age of 92. Yet long after his death people continued searching for such stones. 

Bradford says that at one point the "Palace of Cordova was given  for one of these stones.  It was believed that no poison, no eruptive pestilential or putrid disease, could resist its influence."

This really bears no relevance to our asthma history, although I would imagine if you lived in Seville at this time, and you wanted to see a doctor for your asthma, you might be interested in finding a bezoar stone. That way you' d have insurance in the case the asthma remedy proffered to you was actually a poison.

Or, more likely, possessing such a stone might cure you of your asthma.  Seeking for the stone might be a better option for you than complaining about such a minor ailment as asthma.  If you had enough time and money (which you probably did not), you'd be able to pay someone to go on the hunt for you. Or, better yet, if you were a prince you could trade your palace for one.

  1. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, writer, Robert Ray Roth, editor, “Quiz questions on the history of medicine from the lectures of Thomas Lindley Bradford M.D.,” 1898, Philadelphia, Hohn Joseph McVey, pages 70-72
  2. "Bezoar," The Free Dictionary By Farlex,, accessed 11/9/13
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