Doctors, Disease, and Death at the End of the Ottoman Empire

By Hratch Kestenian
Submitted to Session P4499 (War, social reform and social medicine in the Middle East (19th-21st century), 2016 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
History of Medicine;
On April 24, 1915, Ottoman authorities arrested Dr. Avedis Nakashian in Istanbul along with some 250 other Armenian doctors, pharmacists, politicians, intellectuals and leaders of Istanbul’s Armenian community. The arrest and the imprisonment of these personnel, which coincided with the Gallipoli landings, marked the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Anatolia—a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the empire. While much has been written about political aspects of the Armenian Genocide, few studies have analyzed the social and medical aspects of the genocide. It is my intention to focus on the experiences of Armenian doctors and nurses during the war, by analyzing the difficulties faced and the challenges encountered.

During the war, diseases and epidemics became a major threat to the empire’s health concerns; after all, more Ottoman soldiers died from lethal microbes and bacteria than from battlefield wounds. Armenian deportees who survived the Syrian Desert, and reached Aleppo and Beirut, contributed to the dissemination of infectious diseases such as cholera, typhus, and syphilis. The outbreak of such epidemics, obliged even Ottoman officials to facilitate the opening of hygienic centers in Aleppo in order to prevent the spread of disease to troops and civilians. In such circumstances, only doctors and nurses were capable of saving thousands and controlling epidemics, and Armenians were a large number of them. Many of these Armenian doctors were serving as captains in the Ottoman army, some answering their medical call while others under duress.  It is my interest to study how medicine during WWI was militarized, politicized, and abused, how some doctors used medicine as a survival strategy, while others tried to abuse it for national and personal gains. By combining military history with medical history, I strive to establish a relationship between wars, epidemics and modernization theories during the period concerned.