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The Origin of the “Algorithm”

Baraka, Anis MD, FRCA; Salem, Ramez M. MD; Joseph, Ninos J. BS

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To the Editor:‐Algorithms have recently been introduced in medicine, an example being the American Society of Anesthesiologists' Difficult Airway Algorithm. [1] An algorithm is defined as “a step‐by‐step problem‐solving procedure, especially an established, recursive computational procedure for solving a problem in a finite number of steps.” [2] Although some recent dictionaries correctly attribute the algorithm (and its variant Algorism), as a mathematical tool, to the famed mathematician Mohamed Al‐Khawarizmi (also Al‐Khuwarizmi), [2,3] the exact origin of the word is unknown to the majority of clinicians using these algorithms.
In an exhaustive analysis, Hunke [4] tracks the history of the word algorithm from its origin into relative obscurity and up to modern times. While serving in the palace of El‐Khalifeh El‐Mamoun (813–833 A.D.), Al‐Khawarizmi authored scholarly texts in astronomy, geography, and algebra, as well as general mathematics. In the twelfth century, the algebra and other mathematical texts were translated into Latin, Spanish, and German and circulated in medieval Europe. According to Hunke, [4] it was Al‐Khawarizmi who taught the West their numbers, mathematics, algebra, and the problem‐solving tool algorithm. The Germans modified the name of Al‐Khawarizmi into Algorizmus (Algorismus as the Latin/French equivalent) for ease of pronunciation. However, as often seen, the memory of history is short‐lived. Al‐Khawarizmi died in 840 A.D., and by the thirteenth century, the world had all but forgotten the origin of the algorithm. [4] It was between 1808 and 1811 that the French mathematician Antoine‐Andre‐Louis Reynaud (1771–1844) became interested in algorithms. He since has been credited as one of the first people to give an explicit analysis of an algorithm. [5] It was around this time that he discovered that the word algorithm is derived from the name of the famed mathematician Al‐Khawarizmi. [4]
Anis Baraka, M.D., F.R.C.A.
Professor and Chairman; Department of Anesthesiology; American University of Beirut; Beirut, Lebanon
M. Ramez Salem, M.D.
Ninos J. Joseph, B.S.
Research Associate; Department of Anesthesiology; Illinois Masonic Medical Center; Chicago, Illinois; NINOSJ@AOL.COM
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1. Practice guidelines for management of the difficult airway. A report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists task force on management of the difficult airway. Anesthesiology 1993; 78:597-602

2. Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 1986, Springfield, MA

3. The American Heritage Electronic Dictionary, 3rd Ed. Houghton-Mifflin Co, 1992, New York

4. Hunke S: Allahs Sonne Uber Dem Abendland Unser Arabisches Erbe. Verlags-Anstalt, 1960, Stuttgart, Germany

5. Shallit J: Analysis of the Euclidean algorithm. Hist Math 1994; 21:401-19

© 1998 American Society of Anesthesiologists, Inc.

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