Medicine as an Exact Science

By B. Harun Küçük

From Hayatizade Mustafa Feyzi. he Physician’s Handbook regarding the Balance of Composites = The Düsturü'l Tabib fi Mizanü'l-Terkib (172?)
From Hayatizade Mustafa Feyzi. The Physician’s Handbook regarding the Balance of Composites = The Düsturü’l Tabib fi Mizanü’l-Terkib (172?) [Nuruosmaniye MS 3602, Süleymaniye Library]
Translation of the chart above. Please note the change in the direction of the text. Columns that are red on the original recipe are also red in the translation.
Translation of the chart above. Please note the change in the direction of the text. Columns that are red on the original recipe are also red in the translation.

The author, Hayatizade Mustafa Feyzi the Younger (d.1738), was the Chief Physician to the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III (r.1703). Mustafa Feyzi came from a distinguished family of physicians. His grandfather and namesake, Moshe ben Raphael Abravanel (d.1692) had served as the Chief Physician to  Sultan Mehmed IV (r.1648-1687), and had converted to Islam in the late 1660s and taken on the name Hayatizade Mustafa Feyzi. The Hayatizade family was central to the medical profession of the Ottoman Empire from the late seventeenth century onwards. Hayatizade Mustafa Feyzi the Older’s sons served as court physicians and he had married off one of his daughters to the nephew of Ibn Sallum, who was the patriarch of another powerful family of physicians.The recipe above is for iṭrīfal, a drug that is still popular in Ayurvedic medicine because it purges the excess humidity from the head and cures headaches. This is an exotic recipe that includes only imported ingredients from India.

This recipe is one of the four recipes in Hayatizade Mustafa Feyzi the Younger’s The Physician’s Handbook regarding the Balance of Composites. This manuscript was completed and presented to the sultan shortly after 1724, when Mustafa Feyzi assumed the office of Chief Physician to the Sultan.

In this new role, Mustafa Feyzi played a regulatory role in Ottoman medical practice and joined Sultan Ahmed III’s standardization efforts. Two of Ahmed’s achievements had been to fix the amount of precious metal in the Ottoman coins in 1723 and to establish in 1729 what would be the first Muslim printing press. The book, or rather, the manuscript, is interesting because it argued that medicine was an exact science and aimed to codify recipes on a mathematical basis. The first half of Balance of Composites included a catalog of weights and measures and sought to resolve a contemporary controversy regarding the true weight of the dirham, a unit whose weight varied considerably between regions and professions.

According to Mustafa Feyzi, the Ottoman physicians lacked the kind of precision that the composite recipes required. Consequently, the book showed that the composite effect of ingredients could be quite different from the individual qualities of each ingredient. Iṭrīfal, the first recipe in Balance of Composites was a case in point, as it augmented the dry powers of the ingredients and (almost) cancelled out the cold powers by mixing them in honey. This method of extracting certain qualities from the ingredients was not a secret of nature, Mustafa Feyzi contended, but a calculable effect of mixed drugs.

In order to amplify his claims, Mustafa Feyzi even devised a novel method for writing out recipes. Unlike most of his contemporaries and predecessors, he used numerals instead of words. The table format, which had been transplanted from astronomical texts and was completely novel to the recipe genre, delivered the recipes in a manner that made sense from an arithmetical perspective.

This numerical method made it easy for the physicians to calculate the final effect of a recipe which could be very different from the qualities of any one ingredient. In the final pages of the book, Mustafa Feyzi provided a glossary of herbs and spices and assigned relative ratios of powers for each ingredient. This glossary would help physicians seek out alternatives for and equivalents of ingredients that were not readily available.

The Balance of Composities was a very timely work. As of 1703, the “new physicians”–that is, the physicians who specialized in spagyrics–were banned from practicing medicine in Istanbul. A few years after 1724, Mustafa Feyzi would become instrumental in removing this ban, perhaps because he found the clear science of mathematics to be a better ally for medicine than the secretive art of alchemy.


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