A BIOGRAPHICAL AND HISTORIOGRAPHICAL CRITIQUE OF MOSES MAIMONIDES
by Elise J. Levinoff MSc, Summer 2004

Elise J. Levinoff is a first year student in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa.
This study was funded by the Geza Hetenyi Memorial Studentship for the History of Medicine, administered by the University of Ottawa.

  1. Acknowledgements
  2. Introduction - Arabian Medicine
  3. The Life of Maimonides
  4. Maimonides’ Contributions to Medicine
  5. An assessment of the historical documents written about Maimonides
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

Acknowledgments:

This study was funded by the 2004 Geza Hetenyi Memorial Studentship for the History of Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa. I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Toby Gelfand for his input. I was inspired by the conversations and ideas that took place between us throughout the course of my research. I am thankful for the comments and feedback given by Dr. Jason Tanny and Dr. Batya Grundland. They have always provided me with academic insight throughout all of my endeavors. Finally, I must thank my parents who instilled in me the values of both Jewish and secular education. Maimonides taught: “Teach thy tongue to say ‘I do not know’ and thou shalt progress.”


 

Introduction - Arabian Medicine

The Golden Age of Arabic medicine (750-1230) was strongly influenced by the Greek physicians of ancient times. Many historians who have written about this particular period have noted that the thinkers of this time lacked innovative science in spite of their abilities to excel in mathematics, politics and literature. The physicians of this time period were considered to be the assimilators and transmitters of the pre-existing medical information from their Greek ancestors1. They were criticized for their lack of original medical discoveries. As a result, the period of Arabian medicine has been termed the “body of scientific or medical doctrine which is enshrined in books written in the Arabic language, but, which is for the most part, Greek in its origin.”2

Arabian medicine was important because it became the principal source from which Europe derived most of its medical and scientific knowledge3. Arabian physicians and scholars accepted the writings of the Greeks as a form of truth and authority that was to be preserved, yet also analyzed and developed. Many of the medical scholars of the time period wanted to preserve the pre-existing medical tradition as a treasure chest, and not as a burden or an obstacle.4

2004 marks the 800th anniversary of the death of a great scholar and physician of the Golden Age, Moshe ben Maimon, or Maimonides. From the time of his death to the present day, historians, physicians and philosophers of medicine, culture and religion, have commented on the value of his writings and his remarkable contributions to philosophy, religion and medicine. Maimonides, like the other physicians of his time, transmitted the information handed to him from his medical predecessors. He organized and critically assessed the ideas brought forth by the ancient Greeks. Maimonides also went beyond this critique and added to these medical works some observations of his own.

Opinions of Maimonides have varied widely and much has been written about his achievements in several areas of medicine. Outside of his medical findings, his philosophical works have been more accepted. Yet, the close relationship between his medical, philosophical and ethical findings has made him an even more admirable figure among Jews, as well as in the medical field. Maimonides had to endure additional obstacles as compared to his contemporaries because he was a Jewish physician who was trying to establish himself in a non-Jewish society. In this essay, I outline Maimonides’ contributions to modern medicine, and why he was considered to be a highly regarded physician of his time. I will also present a historiographical account of what other 20th century medical and Jewish historians have written about Maimonides.

  1. F. Garrison, A History of Medicine (4th ed.), 209.
  2. E.G. Browne, Arabian Medicine, Being the Fitzpatrick Lectures, 2.
  3. Ibid., 4.
  4. L. Magner, A History of Medicine, 136.


 

The Life of Maimonides

Maimonides was born in Cordova, Spain, in 1135 under Islamic rule. His mother died shortly after his birth, leaving his father responsible for his upbringing. His father later re-married and had another son, David. Little is known about Maimonides’ father’s occupation, although it has been quoted that he was a learned man, and a pupil of Joseph ibn Migash, a famed scholar5. Furthermore, extensive genealogy has been published about Maimonides’ father’s origins on both sides. His father is said to be a descendent of King David. Maimonides’ father recognized the intellect of his son, and taught him the foundations of Torah and Talmud. Maimonides received his secular education from the Arabs living in Spain at the time; they taught him astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, natural sciences, art and medicine.

In 1148, the family was forced to leave Cordova because they feared persecution from the Almohades. This fanatic Moslem group forced the Jews to abandon their religion or face persecution. The Maimon family wandered around southern Spain and northern Africa for 12 years, before settling in Fez, Morocco. The Caliph in Fez required that only certain Moslem customs were to be adhered to, and he did not interfere with his subjects’ private religious lives. Maimonides’ brother became a jewelry trader. This source of income financed Maimonides’ theological studies. Because the Maimon family did not wish to conceal their religious identity, they left Fez in 1165 to go to Palestine. They remained there for only a short period – Maimonides regarded Palestine as a country of “… great solitude and waste.” 6

It is interesting that a family that was so deeply tied to the Jewish religion – a religion that venerates the return to Zion, or Israel – decided not to remain in Palestine. Perhaps, as a result of the economic tribulations, it was more prosperous for a physician and philosopher to settle in a place that would provide him with monetary compensation. It is also possible that Maimonides wanted to reside in a city that provided him with a means to promote his philosophical writings. After leaving Palestine, the family settled in Fostat, Egypt, just outside of Cairo. There were three noted colleges in Cairo that were devoted to the study of religion, philosophy and science. The following year, Maimonides’ brother died in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, leaving him to care for his brother’s wife and children. Realizing the need to finance his widowed sister-in-law’s family, Maimonides turned to medicine as a means of financial support.

It is unclear as to whether Maimonides obtained a formal medical education. Usually, the training route which one could take to become a physician involved residing with a skilled expert to learn the necessary clinical skills. Maimonides did not have the time to devote to formal learning, because he was preoccupied with his philosophical and theological works. Fred Rosner believed that he may have studied with elder physicians and scholars; in several of his medical works (i.e. in the Medical Aphorisms of Maimonides), Maimonides aptly quotes “the elders before whom I have read.” 7

It is also possible that Maimonides learned his medical trade from Ibn Zuhr, whose father was the prominent physician Abu Merwan Ibn Zuhr. Donald Campbell, a historian of Arabian medicine, believed that between the years 1160-1165, Maimonides became acquainted with ‘Abdu’l-Arab ibn-Muisha, who helped him commence his literary work in medicine8. Another historian of Maimonides and medicine, Meyerhof, said that Maimonides’ writings were influenced by physicians from the West – al-Maghrib or the extreme West – al-Maghrib al-Aqsa.

Most of Maimonides’ writings were based on the compilations of the great physicians Hippocrates and Galen, and the philosopher Aristotle. He possessed a profound knowledge of his predecessors. The works of the Greeks were translated by Arabian physicians such as Sergius of Resh-Ayna during the 7th Century and by Hunayn ibn Ishaq in the 9th Century and were readily available to physicians9. It was crucial to have accessibility to the translated versions of these compilations as a means for practicing medicine and as a vehicle to transmit the writings of the Greeks.

Maimonides earned the reputation as a renowned physician amongst his colleagues. This precipitated his appointment as the head physician to Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt in 1174 who was fighting in the Crusades in Palestine. With this title came a remarkable honour. However, there was an immense amount of responsibility associated with the title, because Maimonides was also a theologian, philosopher and Nagid in Fostat10. Why did Maimonides accept this responsibility in spite of his other commitments? Maimonides was motivated by an economic incentive as a response to economic hardship11. After the death of his father and brother, he was left to care for his own family as well as the family of his late brother’s wife.

Even though he was a Jew who lived in a Moslem dominated society, Maimonides felt comfortable accepting the role as the Sultan’s physician. During this time period, the Jewish people residing in Fostat enjoyed religious autonomy. They also shared similar religious beliefs and values (i.e. monotheism) with their Moslem rulers. These similarities made the Jewish people more open to expressing their religious values in public. From a secular standpoint, they could easily blend into Moslem society, while maintaining their own Jewish practices and values (as Maimonides did with his religious studies and role as Nagid). It is a striking accomplishment that Maimonides was able to maintain his multiple roles as Nagid, philosopher, theologian and physician with proficiency up to the time of his death. He was a man who professed the importance of maintaining his religious values while simultaneously interacting with the Moslem culture and academia. He died in Fostat in 1204 and was buried in Tiberias, Palestine.

  1. D. Macht, "Moses Maimonides, Physician and Scientist. The William Osler of Mediaeval Arabic and Hebrew Medicine," 585.
  2. S.R. Simon. "Moses Maimonides: Medieval Physician and Scholar," 1842.
  3. F. Rosner, “Moses Maimonides and Preventive Medicine,” 317.
  4. D. Campbell, Arabian Medicine and its Influences on the Middle Ages, 98.
  5. N.J. Shanks, “Arabian Medicine in the Middle Ages,” 62.
  6. Several references (Macht, 1906; Mendelson, 1923; Rosner, 2002) mention that Maimonides was the chief Rabbi of Cairo. The term Nagid referred to the head spiritual leader of a Jewish community. The appointed individual was regarded as learned and influenced the Jews of the community.
  7. Leibowitz, 1957; Macht, 1935; and Baron, 1966 have all mentioned that Maimonides was forced to finance the members of his family.


 

Maimonides’ Contributions to Medicine

Maimonides’ most significant works dealt with philosophy and Jewish commentary. The three most notable works on these topics were: Commentary on the Mishneh, Mishneh Torah and The Guide to the Perplexed. His other philosophical works include a book on logic and a Book of Commandments and several commentaries on the Mishneh12. Maimonides wrote ten medical texts: The Extracts from Galen, Commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, The Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides, Treatise on Hemorrhoids, Treatise on Cohabitation, Treatise on Asthma, Treatise on Poisons and their Antidotes, The Regimen of Health, Discourse on the Explanation of Fits, and Glossary of Drug Names. However, his medical works are not as eminent or highly publicized as his philosophical teachings.

There are several indications that highlight the relevance of Maimonides’ medical works for medical practice in his time and in later times. First, he is credited for his discussions on hygiene and the relationship between the mind and the body. Most people who write about him will mention that in his work Regimen of Health, Maimonides indicated that the physical well-being of a person is dependent on his mental well-being, and vice versa. To illustrate this example, S. Bloch mentioned that “Psychosomatic medicine, especially as pioneered by psychoanalysts after World War II, owes a debt to Maimonides; indeed, he could well be crowned the original psychosomaticist.”13 Second, Maimonides’ compendia became organized guides to medicine for medieval physicians. He applied the systematic organization that is seen in his religious texts to the organization of his medical texts. Of his final chapter of “Aphorisms of Galen,” it is said that Maimonides showed a similar ability for which he is renowned, as a systematizer and codifier of Jewish law.

Third, Maimonides added his own commentary to the works of his predecessors, in addition to quoting them as sources. Most of the chapters that were devoted to his own personal thoughts began with the statement “Moses said.” Fourth, unlike his contemporaries, he was not afraid to dispute, or criticize the works of his predecessors. In The Aphorisms of Galen, he says: “Though everything Galen says is true, it is disorganized, for only if one knows the causes of syncope will he be able to recognize its onset and combat the cause.”

Finally, Maimonides was able to link his religious writings in the Mishneh Torah with his medical aphorisms. He believed that prevention of illness and a commitment to a healthy life style are obligations which Jews must uphold in order to fulfill their religious commandments. For example, an important concept in Judaism is the obligation to avoid or prevent danger to life. This concept is exemplified in the Bible and Talmud and is elaborated in the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides said that Jewish law requires that an obstacle be removed in the case where it can endanger one’s life because it is written in the Torah, “Take heed unto thyself and take care of thy life.”14 Maimonides’ medical writings constantly emphasized the importance of preventing any danger – the onset of preventable illnesses – in order to preserve and sanctify life. Therefore, the ability to refute his predecessors, the organization of Galen’s medical aphorisms, the introduction of psychosomatic and preventive medicine and the relationship between religion and medicine were all strong contributions that Maimonides made to the medical field.

  1. The Mishneh was the oral law written by the Judah in the early 1st Century, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Israel. It is a compilation of the Jewish code of laws which is divided into six sections that extends on the law of the Bible.
  2. S. Bloch, “Moses Maimonides’ Contributions to the Biopsychosocial Approach in Clinical Medicine,” 830.
  3. Deuteronomy, 22:8.


 

An assessment of the historical documents written about Maimonides

Aside from his communications with other physicians, Maimonides’ contemporaries said very little about his contributions to the medical field. Ibn Abi Usabi’ah, a famous historian of Arabian medicine said that Maimonides was “the leading man of his time in the art of healing.”15 Also, his followers – not necessarily physicians, but more so his admirers – included his legacy in their poetry:

Galen’s art heals only the body
But Abu Imram’s the body and the soul
With his wisdom he could heal the sickness of ignorance16

Maimonides’ medical works were translated from Arabic to Latin throughout the Middle Ages. They made their way through large European Renaissance publishing cities such as Bologna, Venice and Lyon. They became a source of transmission from one era of medicine to the next. In the 20th century, Salo Baron, a Jewish historian and Fred Rosner, a Jewish physician, have written Hebrew and English translations of Maimonides’ works. Several of these historical and medical works have included critiques of Maimonides’ medical compilations.

Maimonides as seen by Jewish Physicians on the Eve of the Holocaust

In the 20th Century, much has been written about Maimonides’ and his contributions to modern medicine. Those who have written about him have tended to do so on occasion of the anniversary of his birth, or on the anniversary of his death. The choice to write about Maimonides during this time period suggests a search for a role model on the part Diaspora Jews who identified with the economic and religious conditions forced by their subject. Interestingly, the desire to uphold Maimonides as a role model may have caused some modern Jewish commentators to exaggerate the extent to which Jews who lived during this historical period were mistreated by their non-Jewish rulers.

The year 1935 marked the 800th anniversary of Maimonides’ birth. It was also a time in which Jews in Europe were facing persecution from the recently elected Nazi government in Germany. In contrast, the Jewish people of Fostat in the 12th Century enjoyed relative autonomy. Unlike the Jews of Spain who were persecuted under the ruling of the Almohades, the Jews of Fostat were permitted to express their religious beliefs in public. The rulers of Mohammedan territory encouraged cultural independence among the minorities in their empire. This was beneficial, as it allowed the Jews to collaborate with their Moslem counterparts in scientific and philosophical studies. Jews often wrote their works in Arabic, and not in Hebrew, so that they could easily integrate their scientific and theological findings into the society at large.17

A summary of the life of Maimonides and his contributions to medicine was written in 1935 by Dr. A.B. Illievitz, a Jewish physician in Montreal, Canada. The author noted that most of Maimonides’ writings depended on original and independent judgment, but he also noted Maimonides’ shortcomings – that he failed to appropriately cite Galen when necessary. The author was, however, glorifying Maimonides’ contributions to medicine. The article was written from the point of view of an individual who lived in a society which allowed Jews to integrate into their secular community while simultaneously practicing their religious beliefs (unlike the persecution that was plaguing the Jews of Europe). The author glorified Maimonides during this era, because it was a turbulent one for the Jews in Europe, and he wanted to publicize the greatness of an accomplished Jewish physician and medical historical figure. He said: “Unlike his contemporary, on account of the intolerable anti-Jewish hatred, he had to lead a dual life, assuming an outer mask, discovery of which meant certain death.”18 Even though, the Jews of Fostat were autonomous in the late 12th Century, the author compared the life of Maimonides to that of the Jewish people in Europe. He used the comparison to illustrate to his readers that it was, and still is difficult for a Jewish person to succeed in the secular society without being reminded of the fact that he is Jewish. By saying this, he was also further glorifying Maimonides’ achievements because he acknowledged that Maimonides was able to attain such a high status within the non-Jewish medical world. Interestingly enough, although Maimonides was forced to flee from the Almohades in Spain, it is still widely believed that the Jewish people of Cairo were free from religious persecution.

Also in 1935, L. Gershenfeld, a Jewish physician from Chicago, wrote a tribute to Maimonides in celebration of this octocentennial anniversary. Gershenfeld discussed Maimonides’ medical works and the significance of his life as a Jewish physician in Egypt. He compared the persecution of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis in the 1930s to that in Spain by the Almohades in the 12th Century. He said:

“ We in this generation are unfortunately in a position to appreciate this when we see the same endurance manifest by many of the Jews in Germany, who, in the Maimonidean spirit born of intense admiration and affection for their fatherland, cling on even when days of persecution appear.”19

Gershenfeld believed that the Jews of Germany in 1935 were comparable to those of the Jews of Spain in 1148. The Jews of Spain (such as Maimonides) wanted to cling to their societal culture, even during times of religious persecution, much in the same way that the Jews of Germany did. As a result, Maimonides left Cordova, although the Maimon family wandered around Spain for a period of 12 years before settling in Fostat.

David Macht wrote and presented another account of Maimonides in the year 1935. Macht was a physician living in Baltimore at the time. He had the honour of presenting this paper to the Johns Hopkins Medical History Club and Osler Society, at the octocentennial celebration of Maimonides’ birth. Before he began discussing the life of Maimonides the physician, Macht discussed Maimonides’ position in the history of science and medicine. He emphasized the need to discuss and estimate the work of any scientist or physician in relation to the age in which he lived:

… the general emotions and fervor that animated our scientific predecessors, their love of truth and appreciation of its value, the stimulus of scientific imagination, and the hope of achievement for the benefit of fellowman that inspired them – whether eighty or eight hundred years ago – remain relatively unchanged; and they are worthy of emulation and reiteration in these troubled times when even science and the art of healing are no longer looked upon as universal and cosmopolitan, and are tainted and distorted by prejudice and hatred, be it of race, creed or nationality20.

Macht may have been referring to the situation that was taking place in Nazi occupied Germany. He argued that it was important to recognize medical figureheads and their contributions to the advancement of science and medicine in the context of the time period in which they lived. In the conclusion of his paper, Macht compared Maimonides’ greatness to that of Sir William Osler. He said that they shared similar views on science, which was combined with a thirst for knowledge and a devotion to the practice of the healing art. They both advocated for preventive medicine, simple pharmaceutical intervention, and they both believed in the importance of prophylactic treatment and personal hygiene. He also believed that both Osler and Maimonides challenged their colleagues to harmonize science with the humanities.

Macht also mentioned that he supported Maimonides’ decision to decline the position of the physician to Richard the Lionhearted. Macht says: “I am thrilled as much today as I was thirty years ago when I read that after the Crusade this renowned Jew was asked by Richard Coeur de Leon to desert his royal Saracen employer and go with him to England, which he declined to do.”21 Macht supported this decision because he knew that the Christian Crusade led by Richard the Lionhearted was also a Crusade led against the Jews in Israel. It is admirable that Macht could approach his colleagues in 1935 and reveal to them his feelings about Maimonides and the courage that Maimonides possessed in order to excel as a Jewish physician in his time.

In his conclusion, Macht made a comparison between Maimonides and Sir William Osler. The majority of Macht’s colleagues at Johns Hopkins University were non-Jews. They knew very little about Maimonides, yet they were able to identify with the greatness of Sir William Osler. He compared Osler’s greatness with that of Maimonides because he knew that his colleagues could identify with Osler. Maimonides was a role model for Macht much in the same way that Osler was a role model for the physicians at Johns Hopkins Medical School who were listening to Macht’s talk. It is impressive that Macht felt comfortable enough to talk about Maimonides at a renowned medical institution because 1935 was a time in which anti-semitism was rampant, even in the North America.

Just a few years later, in 1939, an article about the life of Maimonides appeared in a journal called Medical Leaves. This journal was devoted to relevant discussions of Jewish medical history, and was published between the years 1939-1943. The review was written by an American Jewish physician, Dr. A. Levinson. Levinson wrote about the life and medical works of Maimonides, but he also included a historiographical account. He divided these historians into those who believed that Maimonides excelled in “every base of medicine” and those who said that Maimonides’ contributions were “of little or no importance.”

According to Levinson, those who glorified Maimonides, such as Pagel (whom Levinson mentions as “the great medical historian”), Roner, Minz, Kraus and Feldman all said that Maimonides possessed a profound knowledge of medicine and he imposed a great medical influence upon future practitioners. Those that opposed Maimonides, Campbell and Robinson, stated that he was a theorist, rather than a physician, and that most of “his health rules were platitudes before the twelfth century.”22 Following this evaluation, Levinson stated why he felt Maimonides was a remarkable physician. First, he talked about Maimonides’ contributions, and how they were based on scientific experimentation, observation, and interpretation. Second, he discussed Maimonides’ descriptions of the mind-body relationship, which were original descriptions not previously made by his predecessors.

Levinson also mentioned Maimonides’ medical influence on Jewish life. He acknowledged that Maimonides promoted essential principals of personal hygiene and preventive medicine among the Jewish people. He felt that this had a major influence on the future of the Jewish people, especially during the Medieval period.

Maimonides’ medical teachings, I believe, were responsible for the fact that, when the entire medieval world fell prey to terrible epidemic diseases, the Jews alone escaped. So noticeable was the immunity of the Jews that they were often accused of being responsible for the epidemics23.

In this regard, it is clear that the author defended the Jewish people from a long-standing anti-semitic dogma claiming that Jews were responsible for the black plague epidemic.

These papers share several similarities. First, they were all written by North American Jewish physicians. They all viewed Maimonides as a role model, a hero – someone to whom they could relate as a medical figurehead in the context of a time period in which the world Jewish community was experiencing a rash of anti-semitism. These physicians had the opinion that Maimonides practiced and advocated his Jewish beliefs while living in Fostat, while also maintaining his secular identity. They could identify with Maimonides, because like him, they were accepted in the secular society because of their status as health care providers. They tried to apply the situation in North America in the 1930s to Maimonides’ situation in Fostat. By doing so, they attempted to emulate Maimonides as a respected Jewish physician within their North American society.

Salo Baron: “Maimonides in social and cultural context”

Salo Baron, who was a Jewish historian, wrote about Maimonides as a physician and philosopher in the context of the Jew in a non-Jewish society. He devoted a section to medical science and practice in his large compilation of Jewish history titled A Social and Religious History of the Jews. His perception of Maimonides was written under the heading of “Medical Contributions.” Baron was disappointed that Maimonides made little reference to medical teachings that reflected upon the teachings from Jewish sources. He said that:

Even great experts in all phases of Jewish lore, like Maimonides, rarely referred to medical teachings reflected in Jewish sources but usually quoted non-Jewish authorities like Hippocrates, or Galen, or the more “modern” Arabian physicians. Characteristically, while quoting Greek authors they knew nothing about the ancient Jewish writers in that language24.

It seems unlikely that Maimonides quoted ancient Jewish physicians in his medical teachings – there was no reference to support that he did. However, during the period in which Maimonides lived, most of the physicians depended solely on the writings of their Greek predecessors. Without these guides, the Arabian physicians would not have had a medical background to use to treat their patients. As well, during the time in which Maimonides lived, Jews were able to practice their religion freely, and were assimilated. Therefore, it is possible that in public places Maimonides wanted to project a secular image to his Moslem patients, especially while serving as the physician to the Sultan. It is also possible that even though the Jews were assimilated, an underlying fear of persecution prevailed that left them from feeling completely autonomous and comfortable with their religious identity. Baron says:

… the very segregation of religious communities throughout Islam, though far less stringent than in Christian Europe and leaving ample room for scholarly cooperation between members of various denominations, was sufficiently marked to distinguish Jewish and Christian doctors in the eyes of both their patients and the Arabian medical historians and biographers. At the time, everything a Jew did, or failed to do, ultimately accrued to the benefit or disadvantage of his community25.

Even though Baron acknowledged that there was ample room for scholarly cooperation between the Jews and Moslems, the underlying feeling still prevailed that the Jewish people were different from their Moslem rulers.

Fred Rosner: “Maimonides, the Religious Jewish Physician/Philosopher”

Dr. F. Rosner, a contemporary physician and expert on Maimonides, has written several commentaries that discuss the relationship that Maimonides made between his medical and religious teachings. Rosner discussed in his article entitled “Moses Maimonides and Preventive Medicine” how Maimonides linked the fundamentals of preventive medicine with the religious laws of preventive medicine from the Talmud. Maimonides devoted an entire chapter of the Mishneh Torah to discussing a variety of hygienic and medical prescriptions for healthy living and for the prevention of illness. Many of the rules that Maimonides stated in the Mishneh Torah were taken from discussions in the Talmud. He argued that this was the strength of Maimonides’ teachings.

Rosner’s perspective and background interests in Maimonides were motivated by their similarities as Jews and physicians. Like Maimonides, Rosner has written several compilations of Jewish medical bioethics, and has translated some of Maimonides’ works into English. He has also written biographical summaries on Maimonides, which have appeared in numerous scientific and historical journals, such as The Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Archives of Internal Medicine, and the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. It is not surprising that he resembles and adopts some of the qualities that embody those of Maimonides himself. It is also unsurprising that he regarded Maimonides as a high ranking and prominent physician of his time.

The Non-Jewish Historical Perspective of Maimonides the physician

Maimonides’ philosophical writings exerted a powerful influence on non-Jewish scholastic philosophers. He had a profound impact on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and Duns Scotas. However, in terms of his medical influences, non-Jewish medical historians do not devote the same attention to Maimonides as do the Jewish medical historians. For example, Fielding Garrison, a well-known medical historian in the early 20th Century, omitted the added obstacles that Maimonides was required to overcome because he was a Jewish physician living in a Moslem-dominated era. Instead, he discussed the general role of Jewish physicians who lived during the period of Arabian medicine in his general survey A History of Modern Medicine26. According to Garrison, the greatest of Moslem physicians was the Cordovan Avenzoar, and Averroes. He did not include Maimonides on his list of the greatest physicians of the time period encompassing Arabian medicine, even though the title of his chapter was “The Mohammedan and Jewish periods.” However, he did say that Maimonides was an important figurehead because he was the physician to the Sultan, as well as the “great liberalizer of his people, in the sense of including science and philosophy as phrases of his Jewish culture, which had hitherto been restricted to the Talmud.”27

Instead, Garrison believed that Maimonides’ role as a Jewish physician was more important in terms of the contributions he made to his Jewish brethren as opposed to the contributions he made to the medical world. His chapter concluded with a discussion of the influence that Maimonides had on future Jewish physicians. He believed that the Mohammedan medical culture was closely connected with the influence of Jews upon European medicine. The Jews were a group of individuals who were often subjected to persecution from the Romans and the Christians following their dispersal outside of Palestine. However, under Arabian domination, Jewish physicians were given the opportunity to become prominent figures at the courts of the Caliphs. Since Jews and Moslems shared a common religious bond (their monotheistic beliefs), the Jews were given the opportunity to advance themselves and their careers. As a result, Garrison says:

During the middle Ages and long after, the lot of the Jewish physicians in Europe was to be used and abused. In the 10th and 11th centuries, he was, as Billings says, “a sort of contraband luxury,” resorted to and protected by prince and prelate alike, on account of his superior scientific knowledge, but hardly countenanced for any other reason28.

Garrison evidently believed that the Jewish physician was “used and abused” and respected for his intelligence, and that in addition to common religious ties with the Moslem rulers at the time, this was the only reason why Maimonides was able to establish a name for himself and for other future Jews.

Donald Campbell also wrote about Arabian medicine from the non-Jewish perspective. He mentioned Maimonides’ reputation of being a renowned physician in Cairo. He said that this reputation spread, and upon hearing of his greatness, Richard the Lionhearted offered him the opportunity to serve as the great crusader’s physician. Campbell also acknowledges that Maimonides did not receive as much recognition from his contemporaries as from those who followed him. The non-Jewish perspective of Maimonides the physician is one that acknowledges Maimonides as an important figure in the period of Arabian medicine. However, the non-Jewish perspective also underestimated the social and cultural impacts of being a Jewish physician in Cairo during his time.

Maimonides’ Self-Critique

It would only be fitting to conclude a discussion on what others think of Maimonides and his accomplishments with a view of what Maimonides thought about his own medical writings. One vivid description of these thoughts arises from his work on the Medical Aphorisms of Moses Maimonides. Maimonides understood that medicine was a multifaceted and difficult topic to master if not organized accordingly. As such, he wanted to compile an organized guide to Galen’s teachings. He also wanted to write this compendium in order to commit the written information to memory.

Maimonides was able to recognize the limitations of his work. He says that he was not the original author, and that he wrote a compendium based on Galen’s ideas. “I have selected and collected from the words of Galen, out of all his works, meaning from his original works as well as from his commentaries on the works of Hippocrates.”29 Maimonides also said that some of the written words in this medical work contained original thoughts of Galen, with some additional words of his own. Maimonides mentioned this because he was chastised for his failure to cite his predecessors in previous works.

  1. S. Leibowitz, “Maimonides on Medical Practice,” 313.
  2. Written by the poet, Alsaid Ibn-Sina Almulk. Referenced in Macht, 333.
  3. S. Grazyel, A History of the Jews, 303.
  4. B. Illievitz, “Maimonides the Physician,” 441.
  5. L. Gershenfeld, “Moses Maimonides,” 28.
  6. Macht, 586.
  7. Ibid., 597.
  8. I. Levinson, “Maimonides the Physician,” 98.
  9. Levinson, “Maimonides the Physician,” 100.
  10. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 254.
  11. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 255.
  12. Garrison, A History of Modern Medicine, 130 (Note that this is the fourth edition. The first edition of this book was written in 1913.)
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Maimonides. Regimen Santiatis: Letters on the Hygiene of the Body and of the Soul, 7.


 

Conclusion

In the context of the era of Arabian medicine, Maimonides’ achievements as a philosopher and physician surpassed those of his contemporaries. The Jewish physicians who wrote about Maimonides on the eve of the Holocaust attempted to create a Jewish role model who they could emulate. They sought to illustrate how a Jewish physician could excel even amongst a predominantly non-Jewish society, in this instance, an Arabian society. Finally, the non-Jewish historians who wrote about Maimonides tended to ignore the religious issue. Instead, they discussed his achievements in the context of the other physicians who lived during the period of Arabian medicine. They believed Maimonides paved the way for other Jewish physicians to advance their careers in the years to come.

From a medical perspective, I was intrigued by the lack of original scientific principles that emerged from the Arabian period of medicine. I was aware of Maimonides’ philosophical achievements, but knew little of his medical achievements. It was this motive that led me to explore why physicians have said that he was a medical giant. From a historical perspective, I learned that it is important to consider the accomplishments of an historical character on the basis of the time period in which this individual lived. Maimonides was fortunate to have practiced medicine at a time when his intelligence and expertise were accepted and needed by the non-Jewish community. Similarly, during the 20th Century, the expertise of the Jewish physician has been generally recognized. The exception to this situation was the period of persecution in Nazi occupied Germany. At this time, Jewish physicians like Macht encouraged their non-Jewish colleagues to consider the greatness of past medical giants and compare these giants to the contemporary ones.

It is fitting to conclude this essay with a statement that was made by Sir William Osler, who was compared by Macht to the greatness of Maimonides. Although the original source cannot be traced, Rosner and others have said that Sir William Osler referred to Maimonides as the “Prince of Physicians.”30 There is documented evidence that Dr. Joseph Hertz corresponded with Osler regarding an inquiry that Osler had about the origination of the Physician’s Prayer31. This suggests that Osler had a vested interest in Maimonides and his medical achievements.

Maimonides was a renowned physician and philosopher who became a role model for many contemporary Jewish physicians. He believed in the importance of religion and philosophy and enmeshed the two. He also integrated his medical expertise into the non-Jewish society, thereby paving the way for future Jewish thinkers and physicians to follow his examples. To the Jewish people he symbolized the highest spiritual and intellectual achievement of man on this earth32.

  1. The original statement that was made by Osler could not be found in any of his literary works. However, Rosner, 1996, as well as Simon, 1999 have both said that Sir William Osler was familiar with Maimonides and equally interested in his life and accomplishments.
  2. The Physician’s Prayer was attributed to Moses Maimonides and first appeared in German in 1783. The origination of the prayer is unknown. Some have said that it was written by Maimonides himself, while others say that it was written by Dr. Marcus Herz, and later translated into Hebrew by Isaac Euchel. Further information regarding the physician’s prayer can be found in Rosner, 1967.
  3. F. Rosner, “The Life of Moses Maimonides, a Prominent Medieval Physician,” 126.


 

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©2004, Elise J. Levinoff, MSc