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Ibn An Nafis: Father of circulatory physiology

Inventions 24 Dec 2020
Ibn An Nafis
© Leonello Calvetti |

Circulatory Physiology is one of the most crucial attributes of the human body. Western Medical science and educational institutes usually give credit to the 17th Century English Scientist William Harvey for discovering it. In reality, Ibn An Nafis ( Ala ad-Din Abu al Hasan Ali Ibn Abi-Hazm al Qarsh) was an Islamic polymath who described the pulmonary circulation of blood in the 13th Century. Moreover, he gave an early insight into the coronary and capillary circulations.

We can easily say that Ibn An Nafis is the father of circulatory physiology.

Early life of Ibn An Nafis

Ibn An Nafis, also known as Ibn Nafis Damishqui was the son of a puissant aristocrat of Damascus. He was born in the year 1210 CE in a small town called Qarsh.

He was a brilliant student, from his early life he studied literature, philosophy and theology. At the age of 16, fascinated by the human life he started to study medicine. His first teacher was Muththab Ad-Din Abdur Rahim Ali who was the chief physician of Noori Hospital.

Life as a physician

After studying for ten years, Ibn An Nafis started practising as a physician. In the year 1236, he moved to Egypt following the request of the Ayyubid Sultan Al Kamil. He became the chief physician of Naseri Hospital.

Ibn An Nafis never went back to Damascus. He witnessed a lot of political, societal and economic change of Egypt. He even observed the fall of Baghdad and the rise of Mamluks. However, he always remained the personal physician of the rulers and aristocrats.

Discovering Pulmonary circulation of blood

The studies on heart and blood circulation had started from 500 BC. Greek philosopher and physician Alcmaeon first observed the arteries and veins while dissecting animals. His observation was accepted by another Greek physician Herophilus. In 350 BC, famous thinker Aristotle described that the heart has three chambers.

Before Ibn An Nafis, it was believed that the circulation system originated from the liver. Moreover, venous and arterial systems were separate closed system and blood transfuses through invisible pores.

Ibn An Nafis was the first scholar to point out the flaws in these theories. He described the flow of blood between the heart and lungs correctly contradicting the belief of a separated system of circulatories.

He pointed out that the interventricular septum cannot transfuse blood, so it has to be the pulmonary circulation which allows the blood to pass between the sides of the heart.

As a devout Muslim Ibn An Nafis considered this knowledge was given by Allah.

His contribution to the field of anatomy and medicine assisted the scholars to understand coronary vessels and the correct definition of blood circulation.

The explanation

Ibn An Nafis explained the first description of Pulmonary circulation in this way-

1. There is no direct pathway from the right chamber of the heart to the left.

2. The interventricular septum is impermeable

3. “The lungs are composed of parts, one of which is the bronchi, the second the branches of the arteria venosa and the third the branches of the vena arteriosa, all of them connected by loose porous flesh.”

4. Blood goes to the pulmonary artery from the right chamber of the heart. Then it goes to the lungs and then pulmonary vein. After that, it reaches the left chamber of the heart.

Ibn An Nafis has written many books. Amongst his works, ‘Sharah al Tashreeh al Qanoon (Commentary on the anatomy of the Canon of Avicenna)’ is the most famous work.

The book was lost until an Egyptian research scholar discovered the manuscript in Prussian state library of Germany in the year 1924.

His other works are

The concise book in the fundamentals of Hadis science

The concise book on medicine

The comprehensive book on the medical profession which is the greatest of Ibn An Nafis works.

The last book is considered as the largest medical encyclopedia.

Ibn An Nafis became the chief physician of the newly established Mansouri hospital of Cairo and worked till the end of his life. He died at the age of 80 in his own home.

Islam has provided a lot of remarkable scholars in the field of science, technology and education. Ibn An Nafis in certainly one of them.