Was Maimonides Really a Physician? Originally Published May 24-25, 2019.

We often study the work of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or Rambam, who lived from 1135-1204.  Born in Cordoba, Spain, he was part of a long line of scholars.  As he reached his 13th birthday, Cordoba fell to the Almohads in Spring 1148, and under the resultant religious persecution the family was forced to leave.  They wandered for several years, settling in Fez (Morocco) by 1160.  The family lived in Fez for seven years, and it was during that time – after young Moses was already an accomplished scholarly writer – that he studied medicine, possibly first under his own father and then with well-known physicians.  The family moved from Morocco to Palestine and then to Cairo. 

Shortly after they arrived in Egypt, his father died as did brother David, precious stone dealer, who drowned in the Indian Ocean, leaving a widow and daughter.  Maimonides was forced to practice medicine for a living rather than studying, as he suddenly had two families to support.  In 1170 he was appointed physician to the Court of Saladin (an exhausting job), in addition to being recognized as head of the Jewish community. 

In his “Treatise on Asthma,” Maimonides describes discussions with the Jewish physician Abu Yūsuf b. Mu’allim and with Muhammad, son of the famous Ibn Zuhr (also know as Avenzoar, who performed the first tracheotomy on a goat, but we digress).  When Maimonides wrote a treatise on pharmaceuticals, he used Arabic, Berber, and Spanish terms, and quoted Spanish-Moroccan physicians who had lived one to two centuries before him.

Historians Ibn al-Qiftī (c. 1248) and Ibn Abi Uṣaybi’a (c. 1270) both spoke highly of him, as did the contemporary physician ’Abd-al-Laṭīf of Baghdad who had visited Maimonides when he was in Cairo. 

Well versed in the writings of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, in addition to Tanakh and Talmud, Maimonides classified medicine into three categories:  preventive medicine, healing of the sick, and care of the convalescent (including the aged and the permanently infirm).  When writing the piece about asthma, he stressed the importance of the physician when the body is healthy, noting that the physician must use art, logic, and intuition, and that the doctor must be able to take a comprehensive view of the patient and his circumstances in order to make a diagnosis of both the general condition and diseases of various organs.

Maimonides’ medical works were written mostly in Cairo between 1190-1204 in Arabic and then were translated into Hebrew and Latin.