“The Free Destination For The Incurably Curious”

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Guest Writer, Nizar Alshubaily


Thus states the website of a truly amazing library and museum.

You would be forgiven if you happen to be on the Euston Road in London heading east if you thought that The British Library was the only place to find old manuscripts, books, and drawings. Less than a kilometer west of The British Library on the south side of Euston Road, there is what first appears as an ordinary building which is in fact another remarkable library and museum often neglected by tourists.

In 1878, a pharmaceutical salesman from Wisconsin, Henry Solomon Wellcome moved to London and began his business. In the 1890s, he began to collect a substantial amount of material on the history of medicine. Upon his death in 1936, the collection (The Wellcome Collection) and the pharmaceutical business were placed under The Wellcome Trust charged with supporting medical research and maintaining the collection. Eventually, the business (The Wellcome Foundation), which provided the funding, was sold off, and The Wellcome Trust is now a global charitable foundation.

The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road “explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future.” It houses a library, museum, gallery, café, restaurant, public events, conference facilities, shop, and a book prize. The collection has over 750,000 books, journals, manuscripts, archives, films, and images, and of course an extensive online digital library.

Of special interest to Muslims or those seeking knowledge of the history of science in the Islamic World, the library has over 1000 Arabic manuscripts and fragments from the 10th to 20th centuries, covering a variety of topics in medicine, cosmology, alchemy, and pharmacology, much of which can be viewed online.

The common narrative in the West is that the period roughly between the fall of Rome (5th century) and the Renaissance (14th century) was a period termed The Dark Ages when scientific exploration stagnated, and then was reborn again in the Renaissance after discovery of the Greek sciences. Nothing could be further from the truth. That period saw an incredible revolution of scientific advances in the Islamic world known as The Golden Age.

In that period, roughly between the 8th and 15th centuries, Arabic/Islamic medicine was far advanced than elsewhere in the world. It was at that time that so much of what we know today was being developed and discovered: Surgical tools, sutures, allergies, the first pills, multiple types of diseases and ailments, autopsies, hospitals, and so much more. It was also in that period that doctors began to wear white robes, taking students around sick beds for training, the ill with communicable diseases were separated from the rest of the patients, and the diagnoses of mental illness instead of the belief in devil possession.

Such great works as Ibn Sina’s “Canon of Medicine” published in 1025 A.D. and became the authority on medicine and was used through the 18th century in Europe. Another is Al-Razi’s (9th-10th century) treatise on smallpox and measles, pioneering work on ophthalmology and contagious diseases. Al-Razi is considered as the Father of Pediatrics. Some of his work was part of the curriculum in European schools of medicine. Or, Ibn Al-Nafis’ (13th century), who was the first to describe pulmonary circulation of the blood.

Many of these valuable manuscripts of early medicine are available in The Wellcome Collection and online from their digital library. Some of these manuscripts were also translated into Latin for a European audience.

Modern medicine owes a debt of gratitude to those early Muslim pioneers.

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