Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a versatile Persian physician, philosopher and alchemist, was born in 865 CE in the ancient city of Rey, a provincial capital of the Samanid Empire. He died there in 925 CE. He is best known for his contributions to alchemy, medicine and philosophy, ethics in medicine and metaphysics, and authored 184 books and treatises on these subjects. Razi was well-versed in the Greek language and was an admirer and critic of Galen, the Roman Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher.
There is little information regarding Razi’s early life, but it is written that he played the lute in his youth and wrote an encyclopedia of music. Unable to make a comfortable living with music, he changed his interest to alchemy.
As a real chemist and physicist, he performed a great deal of research and laid the foundation for scientific chemistry to replace alchemy, having written several books and treatises in the field. He discovered and purified alcohol (ethanol) and pioneered its use in medicine. The discovery of ammonium chloride and other acids is also attributed to Razi.
His achievements are particularly important in the history of chemistry for his systematic classification of chemical substances, chemical reactions, and the apparatus used in his laboratory.
In two important books, Kitab al-Asrar (the Book of Secrets) and Sirr al-Asrar (Secret of the Secrets), he classified matter into three categories plant, animal, and mineral origin. When asked if he had obtained the knowledge of turning iron and copper into gold, he replied with heretofore not described appreciation of the limits of scientific chemistry: “I understand alchemy and I have been working on the characteristic properties of metals for an extended time. However, it still has not turned out to be evident to me, how one can transmute gold from copper.”
Twenty books and treatises in chemistry, written in the Persian language are known to be the work of Razi. But he stopped his studies in alchemy because the chemical experiments caused him an eye disease.
At age 30, Razi, the great Persian polymath, began his medical and philosophical studies and gained practical experience as the director of the Royal Hospital of Rey.
Later, at the invitation of Baghdad’s ruler, he moved to the city to head its famous Muqtadari Hospital for a long time. The same caliph asked Razi to build a hospital, but before doing so, Razi put fresh pieces of meat in various places in the city. Some later time he checked each piece to find the least spoiled one and chose that place as the site of the hospital.
Because of his high reputation as a physician, philosopher and teacher, students flocked to him from all over the Islamic territories. He was a tireless and prolific author in medicine. About 40 of his medical books and treatises are still extant in the libraries and museums of Iran, Britain, France and the library of the United States Congress.
George Sarton, a Belgian-American chemist and historian, in his ‘Introduction to the History of Science’ wrote that Razi was the greatest physician of Islam and the Middle Ages.
Razi was a pioneer in many areas of medicine particularly in the fields of pediatrics and infectious diseases. He wrote an immense medical encyclopedia, a comprehensive book on medicine called Hawi or Kitab al-Ḥawi Fi al-Tibb (the Comprehensive Book on Medicine) consisting of 23 volumes, containing many extracts from Greek and Hindu authors and clinical observations of his own.
Razi was the first to note the pupillary reaction to light. He wrote in the middle of the iris appears a hole that contracts when the light is strong but dilates in obscurity. He also described the operation for the cataract and stated: “I have split the lower part of the pupil and have led the cataract outward.”
He did animal experiments with new drugs, noting their effects and toxicity before administering them to his patients.
A volume of Hawi is dedicated to pharmacology. Indeed, pharmacy can trace much of its historical foundations to the singular achievements of Razi.
His birthday on August 27 has been adopted as the Pharmacology and Pharmacy Day in Iran.