The Fate of Medical Knowledge and the Neurosciences

Sam Safavi-Abbasi, MD, PhD; Leonardo B. C. Brasiliense, MD; Ryan K. Workman, BS; Melanie C. Talley, PhD; Iman Feiz-Erfan, MD; Nicholas Theodore, MD; Robert F. Spetzler, MD; Mark C. Preul, MD


Neurosurg Focus. 2007;23(1):E13 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


In 25 years, the Mongolian army of Genghis Khan conquered more of the known world than the Roman Empire accomplished in 400 years of conquest. The recent revised view is that Genghis Khan and his descendants brought about "pax Mongolica" by securing trade routes across Eurasia. After the initial shock of destruction by an unknown barbaric tribe, almost every country conquered by the Mongols was transformed by a rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and advances in civilization. Medicine, including techniques related to surgery and neurological surgery, became one of the many areas of life and culture that the Mongolian Empire influenced.


Reports about the history of medicine in Asia are scarce. This article provides an overview of the fate of Asian medicine, specifically Persian, Indian, and Chinese scientific, neurological, and surgical knowledge before and during the Mongolian invasion and hegemony. It is generally held that medical knowledge passed into parts of Europe from the south, directly from the Arab countries by way of the Byzantine Empire or from North Africa via the Iberian peninsula.[3,5] Little attention has been focused on another route that may have passed on an even greater amalgamation of knowledge. In the 12th century, the Mongols invaded a large area belonging to the three existing cultural giants. During this period, communication among these cultures as well as with Europe appears not to have been destroyed, as once thought, but in fact flourished. The spread of scientific knowledge, including that related to the nervous system, received an impetus from this East–West exchange.

The name Genghis Khan (1162–1227), of which there are several spellings, is well known in the West. He is remembered most for warfare, and he and his descendants are typically imagined in gruesome terms. He has traditionally been considered the scourge of civilization, at least in the West. On December 31, 1995, however, an article in the Washington Post selected Genghis Khan as the "Man of the Millennium." Recent research shows that his conventional portrait as a purveyor of militaristic horror may be inaccurate.[8,23] Scholars now suggest that Genghis Khan and his descendants brought about a "pax Mongolica" and secured the fabled trade routes between Europe and eastern China known as the Silk Road.[8,23] After the initial shock and destruction associated with invasion by an unknown barbaric tribe, almost every country conquered by the Mongols was quickly transformed by a rise in cross-cultural communication, expanded trade, and sociocultural advances.[23]


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