Mental Illness and the Plural Medical Marketplace in Syria, 1922-?1956

By Beverly Tsacoyianis
Submitted to Session P2656 (Public Health, Wellness, and the Emerging Nation-State, 2011 Annual Meeting
History of Medicine;
LCD Projector without Audio;
What role did class, gender, ethnic, and religious differences play in the consumption and production of healing practices in Syria between 1922 and 1956? How did treatment of mental illnesses change during this period, and what led to these changes? What can patient case files and scientific articles tell us about the lived experiences of illness? This presentation provides preliminary answers to these questions through the use of data culled from medical records of Ibn Sina Mental Hospital, the first modern public psychiatric hospital in Syria founded in 1922 and the only hospital of its kind in the country until 1956, when a second public psychiatric hospital opened near Aleppo. Using patient files and scientific journals of the period, I argue that the use of particular labels and healing practices were a product of a plural medical and scientific marketplace where both elite Western?trained physicians and well?connected local healers contributed to a multi?layered discourse of illness and wellness. Data in some sources from the period suggest that the government?run hospital faced a number of obstacles in finding acceptance, procuring funding, and producing beneficial results for patients in the 1920s?1940s, and more recent sources suggest the situation hardly changed in the early post?colonial period. Nevertheless, the medical marketplace of the time developed into a richly diverse field for individuals and their families seeking diagnosis, treatment, and – ultimately, it was often hoped – rehabilitation. From young soldiers to refugees and shopkeepers, the Ibn Sina Hospital for Mental Illnesses (as it is known in Arabic in Ministry of Health records) was a temporary home for Syrians and foreigners of many walks of life during a period of great political and social transformation in the region. In this paper, I critique the usefulness of Foucauldian approaches on the clinic and on madness in the study of this period in medical and Middle Eastern history. My argument about medical narratives and stigmatization is also influenced by theoretical concepts and empirical methods of scholars working on the history of psychiatry in Egypt and colonial African states. Ultimately, this research has larger implications for studying health in modern societies, particularly in the study of the role of etiology and the effect of labeling in seeking and responding to treatment, and in the study of the role of the modern state in developing health care institutions.