Ever since Asaf haRofeh (‘Asaf the Physician’) published his 7th century Book of Remedies in Hebrew, Jews have been famous throughout the Mediterranean for their medical knowledge. Many were practising physicians as well as scholars and practitioners of other occupations, a tradition still with us.
Isaac Israeli (850-c.932) was known as the greatest doctor of the western Muslim Caliphate. He also wrote treatises on medical ethics and the nature of fevers.
Dunash beTamim (c.900-c.960) was a physician to the Fatimid court of al-Qayrawan in Tunisia. He is best remembered for his comparative study of Hebrew and Arabic.
Hisdai ibn Shaprut (c.915-c.975) was a court physician to the Spanish Umayyad Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III. He translated crucial ancient Greek pathological treatises into Arabic. He was also a diplomat and man of letters.
Three famous Jewish physicians practised in the Christian world. Shaprut’s contemporary, Shabbetai Donnolo (913-983), led an independent medical centre in Salerno, Italy, and described 120 remedies in his book, Sefer ha-Yakar. Yehuda Ha-Levi (c.1075-1141) worked as a doctor in Christian Toledo before leaving for Egypt. Moses Sefardi became Pedro de Huesca, physician to King Henry I of England.
Jehudah de Saul ibn Tibbon (1120-c.1190) was a master translator. He fled Granada (in Spain) and settled in southern France, where he practised medicine. His grandson, Moses ben Samuel (1240-83), worked as a doctor in Marseilles, and translated from Arabic medical works by Maimonides (see below) and Avicenna (980-1037).
Apart from his fame as a philosopher and Torah scholar, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) also wrote extensively on medicine and medical ethics. He was court physician to the Egyptian vizier Al-Fadil and the Arab ruler Saladin.
The Spanish expulsion of 1492 saw Jews and Marranos (‘secret Jews’ who pretended to have converted to Christianity) leave for Portugal and later Amsterdam, Hamburg, Italy, Poland, Greece, the Ottoman Empire and even Goa in India. Many were physicians, including the philosopher Yehuda Abrabanel (1460-1535). Another was the Marrano court physician to Queen Elizabeth I, Rodrigo Lopez. Lopez was charged with plotting to kill the queen and was executed in 1594.
Sephardi physicians joined Jewish refugees from France and Germany in the esteemed Italian University of Padua. Several returned to their home countries, where it is said they helped to inspire the 18th century Enlightenment (haskalah).
Yaacov Rosales was born in Lisbon in 1588 into a Marrano family of physicians. He later immigrated to Hamburg (Germany). Like many other Sephardi doctors, he controversially adhered to both alchemy and modern medical techniques.
Sephardi Jews were also prominent in early American medical history. David Camden do Leon was the first surgeon-general of the Confederate army. The Solis-Cohen brothers, Jacob and Solomon, were pioneers of otolaryngology and medical therapeutics respectively.