Public health history: An overview of practices in Ottoman era, West

Written by The Frontier Post

DÜZCE, Turkey (AA): The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has created the study of public health history, a field that is working to uncover practices and developments seen during the Bubonic plague and cholera pandemic

Even though COVID-19 has posed an unprecedented challenge to public health, it has made one positive contribution to the world: the emergence of public health history as an academic discipline.

Examining the history of diseases and public health can help deal with both COVID-19 and future pandemics by comparing them with past outbreaks of diseases, scholars in this area of research argue. Digging into the history of public health could also provide essential knowledge and understanding of the economic, political, military and diplomatic history of nations, they stress.

Anadolu Agency (AA) interviewed historian Ismail Yaşayanlar of Düzce University in northwestern Turkey on the history of diseases and public health in Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

To better understand why this area is relevant and crucial, he remarked one need only remember the important role that the 14th-century Bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, played in the demise of the feudalism in Europe, as it killed tens of millions on that continent, as well as in the Near East and North Africa.

Similarly, Yaşayanlar said, the extent of the cholera pandemic that originated in British-controlled India in 1817 points to the prevalent economic networks and political settings in the world at that time.

The extent and transmission speed of the disease, caused by intestinal infection, shows the dominance of the British Empire, he added, detailing how British ships carried the deadly virus to numerous different parts of the globe.

With its quickly growing cities, Europe witnessed its urban sewage systems and clean water supply fall short in the early period – a recipe for illness – more so than the Ottoman domain, where most of the population was agrarian village dwellers, he said.

Historian İsmail Yaşayanlar of the Düzce University, Düzce, Turkey, April 27, 2022. (AA Photo)
Historian İsmail Yaşayanlar of the Düzce University, Düzce, Turkey, April 27, 2022. (AA Photo)

Yaşayanlar explained that the Ottoman state was quick to adopt and apply modern public health practices that were becoming increasingly prominent in the West from the 19th century onward.

This came as a natural result of the Ottomans’ modernization efforts at the time, he added, as they were closely watching and following the ideological, economic and technological currents in the West.

Public health gained significance in the West as it raced to meet the need for healthy bodies to work in the manufacturing, agriculture and mining industries, as well as to serve in its conscripted armies.

The Ottomans, who were also attempting to create a modern and capable army, increased the average life expectancy of their people, boosted agricultural production and adopted up-to-date Western public health institutions, policies and practices, he further explained.

For instance, Yaşayanlar said, the empire in the early 19th century started forming institutions to prevent the spread of cholera and the plague, which hit the capital Istanbul and other port cities like Izmir particularly hard.

The Imperial Medical School (Mekteb-i Tibbiye-i Şahane) was opened in Istanbul by Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) in 1827, sending its graduates across the empire’s provinces – regions that previously did not have access to proper modern health facilities.

Furthermore, from the 1860s onward, disinfection centers (Tahaffuzhane) were established in different parts of the country, including Urla near Izmir, as well as in Sinop on the Black Sea coast and Kamaran Island on the Red Sea, to serve travelers, traders and Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca, thus preventing the spread of diseases throughout the realm.

More examples of the importance that the Ottomans attached to public health, the historian said, are the numerous public hospitals Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) opened across the empire, as well as the donation he made to Louis Pasteur, the famed French microbiologist who developed vaccines for rabies and anthrax.

The Imperial Bacteriology Institute (Bakteriyolojihane-i Şahane) was opened in 1894 with help of the Pasteur Institute in Paris and started to produce indigenous vaccines, Yaşayanlar added.

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