Ibn Nafis was a great medical scientist and cardiologist of the 13th century was the first to describe pulmonary circulation of the blood four hundred years before William Harvey’s reputed discovery of the pulmonary circulation of blood, which is part of the general circulation of blood in the human body.

Ibn Nafis, as he is known in the literature of medicine and history, was born in 601 AH/1213 CE at a village called Qurashiya near Damascus in Syria. His full name is Ala al-Din Abul Hasan Ali bin Abil Hazm al-Qarashi al-Damashqi al-Misri.

He received education in medicine at Nuri Hospital and Medical College at Damascus which was founded by a Turkish King Nur Al- Mahmud Ibn Zangi.  Ibn Nafis learnt medicine from a famous medical expert Muhadhab al-Din al-Dakhwar.

Besides medicine, he excelled in Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence), Arabic Literature and Islamic Theology.

Ibn Nafis shifted to Cairo during his middle age and spent the rest of his life there. He joined the al-Masruriyya which was a famous seat of learning in Egypt and started teaching Islamic Law. His name was included in the great theologian of his era, and he has authored some books on this topic.

Subsequently, he was appointed as a director at two hospitals Bimaristan al-Nasiri Hospital/ Medical College and Bimaristan al-Qalawun Hospital in Cairo. Ibn Nafis spent his entire life in the historical city of Egypt in research, investigation, writing and practising medicine.

Ibn Nafis invented the method of writing notes and books on the subject of medicine and anatomy. He was very fond of medical science and a man of the pen and donated his entire property to the library and hospital prior to his death. He died in 687 AH/1288 CE in Egypt.

Incidences show that he was a practising Muslim, while he was sick, the physician advised him to take wine as medicine, but he refused to take wine by saying that he could not see God with wine in his body and he preferred death over drinking wine.

Ibn Nafis propounded the theory of pulmonary blood circulation with correct measurement and scientific reasoning.  He described that the heart is laterally divided into two sections by a thick wall called septum. After a cycle of greater circulation, the blood returns to the right section of the heart, from there it goes out to the lungs for oxygenation.

From the lungs, it returns to the left section of the heart from where it goes out on a fresh cycle of greater circulation. The circulation of blood from the heart to all parts of the body, except the lungs, is called greater circulation.

The ‘deoxygenated’ or deficient blood which returns to the heart needs to be oxygenated before it goes out on a fresh cycle of greater circulation. The process of oxygenation takes place in the lungs which receive fresh air through respiration.

The pulmonary circulation covers the circulation of the blood from the heart to the lungs and back. It is this part of the circulation which Ibn Nafis discovered is about 640 AH/1240 AD. Ibn Nafis described the pulmonary circulation of the blood in detail.

With this discovery, Ibn Nafis also disproved the 1000-year old theory that the blood travelled directly from the right section of the heart to the left through the septum. This theory was presented by the ancient Greek scientist Galen (129-199 AD) who had even suggested that there were invisible pores in the septum.

Ibn Nafis refuted the view of Galen on blood circulation through the septum; he clearly stated that the septum was solid and had no pores, visible or invisible. Blood naturally passed from the right ventricle to the left ventricle by way of the lungs.

Discovery of correct procedure of blood circulation in the chambers of heart was one of the major discoveries in the history of medicine by Ibn Nafis in the 13th century.

Ibn Nafis was a prolific writer on medical science; he authored numerous books and monographs on medicines which are still considered encyclopaedic on medicine. His books on medicine were included in the syllabus in various medical colleges and intuitions in Europe, Middle East and South Africa for several decades.

Some of his famous books on medical science are:

  • Kitab al-Mujaz fi al-Tibb was the first book on medicine written by Ibn Nafis. It is well classified and succinctly summarised book on medicine.
  • Al-Shamil fi al-Tibb was another voluminous book on medicine. It is comprised of more than three hundred chapters that discuss the various issues of medical science but it was left incomplete after his death. The Manuscript of the book is still available in the Damisq Museum.
  • He wrote a research document on ophthalmology and diet plane.
  • He also wrote commentaries on medical books of Hippocrates, Avicenna, and Hunayn ibn Ishaq.