Maimonides - A Jewish doctor in the Middle Ages
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Maimonides on Medicine

Saladin's Castle
Saladin's castle in Cairo, where Maimonides worked

In the 1100s AD, when Maimonides wrote his book about medicine, doctors didn't have very many medicines or medical treatments that worked. Most of the things they tried just made people even worse. Maimonides was smart enough to realize this, so he wrote his book mainly about how to stay healthy and not get sick in the first place.

For instance, Maimonides realized that a lot of people got sick when they lived in cities. This was because the sewage got mixed with the water supply and brought dysentery and cholera germs to people who drank the water. Maimonides thought it was something in the air. But he told people to try to live "in a city with an open forestation and outside water," which was good advice.

People could also stay healthier, according to Maimonides, by keeping clean, and by getting good food and plenty of exercise and fresh air. In this he agreed with other doctors of his time, like the Armenian doctor Mkhitar Heratsi.

Maimonides also thought, correctly, that people who were upset or depressed were more likely to get sick, so he advised doctors to try to protect their patients from things that might upset them, and to help them figure out how they could be happier. He advised people who were depressed to listen to music, look at paintings, and take pleasant walks, in order to recover. He did not believe in witches or curses, and he said that anyone who thought magic spells could make you sick was foolish.

If you got sick anyway, Maimonides thought that chicken soup could make you better. For snakebite, he suggested tourniquets, burning out the poison, and rest. In any case, no charms or spells would help.

There were also other things that Maimonides could not understand correctly. He prescribed many herbal medicines that we know today don't work, and he didn't know that there were physical problems that caused depression. He thought a good diet might help with asthma.

In order to find out what was right, Maimonides insisted, like Aristotle, that scientific experiments and logical thought were the only way to find out what caused diseases, how to prevent them, and how to cure them. He encouraged his students to carry out this kind of scientific experiment.

Learn by doing: do you feel better after exercising?
More about Maimonides
Maimonides about Jewish law and Aristotle
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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