“Medical history in Turkey: A review of past studies and recent researches”


Feza Günergun

Chair for History of Science, Faculty of Letters

Istanbul University

34459 Beyazıt – Istanbul




Interest in medical history in Turkey started in 1870s within the nationalistic movement led by Turkish physicians endeavouring for the teaching of medical sciences in Turkish and not French, the teaching language at the Medical School at Istanbul. Their aim was to prove that medical sciences had a long tradition within the Islamic world and thus, Turkish was an appropriate langage for the teaching of medical sciences. Dr. Hüseyin Remzi (1839-1896) , a leading member of the group, projected to compile a three volume work, including chapters on the history of Turkish and Islamic medical sciences. Although he could only publish a single volume (Tarih-i Tıb, Istanbul 1887) related to medical history in ancient civilisations, this volume can be considered among the early medical history books issued in Turkish.


In the first decades of the twentieth century, studies on medical history focused especially the history of Turkish medicine. The leading idea was to prove that Turks practiced medicine and produced medical works throughout their history. Physicians such as Osman Şevki Uludağ (1889-1964) and Galip Ata [Ataç] (1879-1947) wrote on medical history with the purpose of refuting European views claiming that Turks were enemies of science and confirming Turkish contributions to Islamic science. Dr. Rıza Tahsin’s (1875-1950) work on the history of the Imperial School of Medicine (Mirat-ı Mekteb-i Tıbbiye, 1912) published in the same period, was one of the earliest books written on the history of a medical institution.


With the foundation of the “Institute for Medical History” in 1933 in the Faculty of Medicine of Istanbul University, research activities acquired an institutional basis. The head of the institute, Dr. Süheyl Ünver (1898-1986), was engaged in the study of medical history in order to disprove the assertions of French doctors arguing that medical institutions in Turkey were established by foreigners. Thus, he tried to find out the sources of Turkish medicine. He published “Medicine of the Uygurs” (1936) and “History of Seljuk Medicine” (1943). He tried to prove that Avicenna, Rhazes, Biruni and Farabi were Turkish. His researches and that of his contemporaries were highly colored by the state’s policy (the newly founded Turkish Republic, 1923) stressing the Turkish presence in the history of civilisation. In his numerous articles, S. Ünver treated a wide variety of subjects. He created the first journal on Turkish medical history (Tıp Tarihi Arkivi, 1935) and founded the Turkish Society for History of Medicine (1938). The latter was helpful in bringing together Turkish medical historians for various activities.


The establishment of the chairs for medical history in Ankara (1946), Istanbul (2nd chair in 1967), İzmir (1965) and other cities during the last two decades of the 20th century, widened the interest in medical history. National symposia regularly organized since 1988, graduate programs conducted in various Turkish universities promoted new researches which mainly focused the following topics: medical manuscripts produced during the Ottoman classical period (15th-17th c.); medical schools and the teaching of medical sciences in Turkey throughout the Ottoman period (14th to 210th c.) the introduction of European medical knowledge into Turkey (17-19th c.) the biographies of Turkish physicians, the traditional (darüşşifas) and modern hospitals.


It is hoped that the present paper which aims to review researches made so far, will also draw attention to new sources and topics to be inverstigated in the future. The present study will try to give an idea about the medical traditions, medical teaching and practice in Turkey between 15th to 20th century.