Health, Education

Study of public health history rises as major field during pandemic

Following contemporary currents, Ottomans swiftly adopted public health institutions, policies, practices in 19th century West, says expert

Ahmet Gencturk   | 27.04.2022
Study of public health history rises as major field during pandemic

ANKARA

The coronavirus pandemic, which profoundly affected the world economy and political stage, also contributed to rise of public health history, a subdiscipline that until recently had been underexplored.

Examining the history of diseases and public health would help deal with both COVID-19 and future pandemics by comparing them with past outbreaks of disease, scholars of this area of research argue.

Digging into the history of public health could also provide essential knowledge and understanding into the economical political, military, and diplomatic history of nations, they stress.

Anadolu Agency interviewed historian Ismail Yasayanlar of Duzce University in northwestern Turkiye on the history of diseases and public health in Europe and the Ottoman Empire.

Historian Ismail Yasayanlar of the Duzce University, Turkiye

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 the Near East and North Africa.

Similarly, Yasayanlar said, the extent of the cholera pandemic that originated from 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.

Public health in the Ottoman Empire

Yasayanlar 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 modern, capable army, increase the average life-expectancy of its people, and boost agricultural production, adopted up-do-date Western public health institutions, policies, and practices, he further detailed.

For instance, Yasayanlar 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 Sahane) 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 onwards, disinfection centers (Tahaffuzhane) were established in different parts of the country, including Urla near Izmir, as well as Sinop on the Black Sea coast, and Kamaran Island in 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 Sahane) was opened in 1894 with help of the Pasteur Institute in Paris and started to produce indigenous vaccines, Yasayanlar added.

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