A Report of the International Conference “The Exchange of Medical Knowledge Past and Present between Austria and Iran”, Vienna

A weblog entry by Shahrzad Irannejad. 

On the 26th and 27th of June, the Working Group History of Medicine of the Commission for the History of Sciences and Humanities of the Austrian Academy of Sciences hosted in Vienna a small but very fruitful International Conference dedicated to the several aspects of "The Exchange of Medical Knowledge Past and Present between Austria and Iran". A major point of focus of this conference was the context, the person and the works of Eduard Jakub Polak, an Austrian physician, who was the first teacher of "Western" medicine in 19th century Iran. History of medicine in Qajar era is of great interest to me, as the Qajar era in Iran is very important for the study of humoral medicine as a medical paradigm. This era marks a point of paradigm shift in medicine in Iran. I was invited to the conference to provide an introduction to the state of humoral medicine as it arrived in the Qajar era. It was a great opportunity to meet up close many scholars in the field, whose work I had followed over recent years.

The event had as its preface a pleasant performance of Persian traditional music by the Simorgh Ensemble. Then we had the welcome and opening remarks by Hermann Hunger, Head of the Commission for the History of Sciences and Humanities, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Helmut Denk and Felicitas Seebacher, Chairpersons of the working group History of Medicine, Commission for the History of Sciences and Humanities, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Afsaneh Gächter, the organizer of the conference who is a visiting researcher at Josephinum – Ethics, Collections and History of Medicine of the Medical University of Vienna and a member of the working group History of Medicine, Commission for the History of Sciences and Humanities, Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research focus is Eduard Jakub Polak, and this conference was meant as a concluding step of her most recent publication project on him.

To provide a context for the next presentations of the conference, I presented a talk entitled "Medicine between Occident and Orient: Texts and Ideas in Transit". I discussed how the Perso-Arab world inherited its core medical ideas from the Greeks, and elaborated upon and made sense of these ideas in a new linguistic and cultural context. After a brief tribute to Galen (among other Greek scholars), I presented how his ideas were transferred to the Islamicate world through the "Abbasid Translation Movement". I discussed how systematic translations of knowledge in 8th century Baghdad made the rise of such stars as Avicenna (980-1037) possible. I presented how medical ideas were transformed through transfer beyond geographical, linguistic, and cultural borders and by processes involving commentaries, encyclopedic summaries, translation and further interpretation and transformation. I then discussed in brief the various aspects of the Avicennean corpus as the common medical heritage of humoral and modern medicine, in order for us to better understand the state of humoral medicine in Qajar Iran, before and throughout its encounter with "modern" medicine.

Figure 1: Prof. Hormoz Ebrahimnejad delivering the keynote speech in the Theatersaal of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (Photo by Shahrzad Irannejad).

Prof. Hormoz Ebrahimnejad (University of Southampton) delivered an insightful keynote speech entitled "Jacob Polak's Place in the Development of Medicine in Nineteenth Century Iran". He challenged the conventional idea that in Qajar Iran there was a clear-cut distinction between "Western" and "Traditional" medicine. He argued that Polak's work, as perceived in Iran, represented the apex of the period in which medical transformation was characterised with dialogue between Iranian and Western medicine. He examined Polak's books and lectures, as translated by his students at the Dâr al-Fonun, to analyse a type of medical modernisation that involved the active participation of traditional resources.

I had the honor the chair the first panel of the second day of the conference. Marcel Chahrour, (Commission for the History of Sciences and Humanities, Austrian Academy of Sciences) talked about "Austrian Physicians and the Discovery of the Medical Orient". Dr. Afsaneh Gächter presented "Austrian Physician Jacob E. Polak as a Pioneer of the Modern Lithotomy in Iran". And Dr. Shahrokh Shariat shared with us what the life lessons of Polak mean for him as a prominent urologist. To wrap up the session, David Venclík, PhD from Charles University (Prague), talked about "A Jewish Physician from Bohemia in the Persian Court - Jacob E. Polak's Reception in Czech Sources". 

Figure 2: Dr. Afsaneh Gächter (also the organizer of the conference) discussing the textbooks Polak wrote in Persian with the help of his assistants (Photos by Shahrzad Irannejad).

The second panel, chaired by Agnes G. Loeffler (University of Wisconsin), dealt with Austrian doctors in Iran in more recent times. Michael Hubenstorf (Medical University of Vienna) talked about "Austrian Nazi-Displaced Physicians in Iran 1947-1962". Anthropologist Erika Friedl (Western Michigan University) dedicated her lecture to the heritage of a hardworking lady and presented the paper "Professor Elfriede Kohout, MD, in the Medical Traditions of Shiraz". Dr. Mohammadhossein Azizi (Iranian Academy of Medical Sciences) payed tribute to his late Professors in Shiraz by his speech "A Look at Two Austrian Medical Professors at the University of Shiraz – Dr. Werner Dutz and Dr. Joseph Tomasch". 

Figure 3: Dr. Mohammadhossein Azizi presenting the story of the Austrian Dr. Tomasch in Shiraz University (Photos by Shahrzad Irannejad).

The third panel, chaired by Erika Friedl, was dedicated to reports of ongoing projects. Chris Walzer (Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine) filled in for his absent colleague Sasan Fereidouni (Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine) and talked about their project "Wildlife Conservation and Research in Iran". In a thought-provoking lecture, Agnes G. Loeffler (University of Wisconsin - School of Medicine and Public Health) talked about "Traditional Persian Medicine in Allopathic Practice". To wrap up the session, Dr. Afsaneh Gächter and I presented our ongoing exchange facilitating project between Iran and Austria by presenting about "The Exchange of Medical Traditional Knowledge between Austria and Iran Today".

In the last session, which was less conventional and a refreshing conclusion to a lively conference, Jaleh Lackner Gohari (MD, Internist, Former Member of Vienna Medical Faculty and Medical Officer at UN Organisations) narrated about her first days as an Iranian medical student in post-was Vienna, in a heartfelt presentation "Perspective and Memory: Encounter of a Female Iranian Medical Student with Vienna in the 1950s". The conference ended with an engaging book presentation (Normalsein ist nicht einfach: Meine Erlebnisse als Psychiater und Filmemacher) in German by Pertra Allahyari in dialogue with her father, the author, Dr. Med. Houchang Allahyari (Iranian psychiatrist, filmmaker and writer based in Vienna).

Figure 4: Dr. Houchang Allahyari in dialogue with his daughter Petra Allahyari (Photo by Shahrzad Irannejad).