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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Winter 1996, Vol.16, No.1
Tanslating the Medical Tenets of Maimonides

By Peter Wortsman

Uriel Barzel'58

"I know for certain, and without any doubt, that there is a craft and an art through which one can gain some knowledge of the treatment of sicknesses..."

So wrote Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, the 12th century court physician to Visier Al-Fadhil, regent of Egypt. A polymath of his day, a man renowned above all for his theological and philosophical writings, Maimonides turned to medicine as a livelihood in late middle age and became, in the words of Sir William Osler, "a prince of physicians." His opus includes 10 medical texts on subjects as diverse as asthma, poisons and antidotes, and sexual intercourse, works notable for the absence of superstition and their fidelity to observation and the rudimentary precepts of the scientific method.

Thanks to the painstaking scholarship of Uriel Barzel'58, professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the contemporary English language reader has gained privileged access to one of Maimonides' untranslated texts, "Extracts from Galen or the Art of the Cure" (The Maimonides Research Institute, Haifa, Israel, 1992).

How did a distinguished Israeli-born endocrinologist come to immerse himself in a Judeo-Arabic take on classical Greek precepts of medicine?

Actually, according to Dr. Barzel, something of a polymath in his own right, it was an early scholarly interest in classical languages and literature that led him to medicine. As a student of Arabic language and literature and Islamic culture at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the 1940s, he discovered and translated early Arabic medical texts. His active duty in Israel's War of Independence in 1948 crystallized a burgeoning interest in the practice of medicine. Dr. Barzel later emigrated to New York, where he pursued pre-medical course work at Columbia's School of General Studies before enrolling at P&S. The translation, completed during his studies, lay dormant for many years until the Maimonides Institute in Israel published it.

For Dr. Barzel, endocrinology has since taken precedence over translation; practice, teaching, and a long list of scientific publications have precluded classical scholarship.

To those interested in the history of medicine, Dr. Barzel offers a rare look at the dawn of medical thinking. And though he readily admits that much of what Maimonides has to say is limited by the knowledge of his day, "it may give us some humility," the translator maintains, "to glimpse a medical mind at work 800 years ago."

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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