Azerbaijan International

Winter 1995 (3.4)

Medicine in Azerbaijan
A Brief Historical Overview

by Dr. Nigar Efendiyeva

The history of medicine has deep roots in Azerbaijan. Early man used herbs and vegetation in his first efforts to cure illnesses. The experience he gained during the centuries was passed down generation to generation and developed into folk medicine. With the appearance of writing, the development of oral and written branches of folk medicine became separated. Scientific medicine became based on the written word.

The rich flora of Azerbaijan has attracted the attention of doctors and scholars as well as the general public from ancient times. Many herbs were used for prophylaxis and treatment. Women naturally observed the special effects of fruit, vegetables and herbal teas in controlling coughing, bleeding, pain, diarrhea and many other conditions and diseases.

Prior to 1828, there were no European type drug stores in Azerbaijan but there were herbal drug stores (Attar) which stocked medicinal herbs that were imported from both Iran and India. During the 1920s these herbal drug stores were closed down and the literature of the folk medicine which had been written in Arabic script was burned. This was part of the Soviet policy against Islam that was carried out specifically in Central Asia and Azerbaijan. To use traditional medicine during the Soviet power was interpreted to mean that the Soviet doctors were not capable of treating people. However, the older people in the community often continued to seek help from traditional specialists.

Medical manuscripts
Written medical history is usually traced to Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) (980-1037 AD) who was an influential philosopher-scientist in the region and who wrote two major works related to health. "Kitab Ash-Shifa" (Book of Healing) was a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopedia and the "Canon of Medicine" became known as one of the most famous books in the entire history of world medicine. Azerbaijan's Institute of Manuscripts has one of these rare "Canon" copies. It was Avicenna in the 11th century who observed "how mistaken modern medical men are to think that physicians before them knew nothing!"

In fact almost all scholars, poets, and philosophers in the East wrote at least one work about medicine. Great emphasis was placed on prevention and prophylaxis. The famous poet, Nizami Ganjavi (12th century), discussed issues of health and folk medicine in his works. At the beginning of the 14th century, a Tabriz Medical Center, Darash-Shifa (House of Recovery) was well known throughout the entire East. In the 19th century there were Hasanbek Zardabi and Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1873) who used medicine as a basis for their philosophic ideas during a period when scientific medical thought was just developing. Of course, the lack of medical institutions and personnel gave people in rural areas little choice but to seek treatment from priests and other non-professionals.

There used to be a number of specialists who were involved in treating various ailments. "Dellaki" were barbers who also pulled teeth and did "cupping" (placing heated cups on one's back to draw out colds), blood-letting, and lancing abscesses. "Synichi" (traditional chiropractors) were involved in setting bones and dealing with fractures. Bones of the lower extremities were traditionally set in very primitive ways. "Gopchi" were involved with treating children and adults with respiratory infections. "Mamas" (midwives) assisted women in childbirth and treated women afflicted with gynecological difficulties.

The advice of clergy and mullahs was often sought in matters related to health. There were places (and still are) known as "pir" which essentially are shrines to holy men. Sick people were brought there and offerings made for their recovery. Some would spend the night. Sometimes "treatment" involved inhaling the smoke of herbals, drinking water from a special spring or eating specially prepared meat.

M.T. Akhundov was one of the first persons to oppose quackery. He wrote about issues of hygiene and sanitation. M. G. Zardabi (1842-1907) also played a significant role in our medical history. He was the first Azeri naturalist and Darwinist and founded and edited, "Ekinchi", the first Azeri newspaper in Russia. Both Akhundov and Zardabi dedicated a series of works to malaria which was ravaging the country at the time and which took thousands of lives every year. Zardabi's book, "Hygiene", was the first scientific medical research in the field of hygienic health. It was published in Azeri in 1914 and became a valuable medical work.

The well-known satirical journal, "Molla Nasreddin", also played a significant role in health education. Jalil Mammadgulizade, the editor, used to deride the ignorance of quacks and mullahs, exposing their charlantry, backwardness, and ignorance of their medical knowledge.
The 19th century brought Russian imperialism to Azerbaijan and with it came Russian medical doctors. Many of them made great efforts to organize medical services.

Only in 1918 did Azerbaijan manage to break free of Russians for a brief two year period. But even during that short interim, Azerbaijanis actively worked to establish a medical service. By then, a number of Azerbaijanis had received medical education abroad in Germany, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Moscow and other cities.

On September 1, 1919, the Parliament of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) passed legislature to establish Baku State University, which became the nation's highest center of education. Medicine was one of the first areas of study.

V.I. Razumovsky, the first Rector, attracted some of the best professors from Russia: In spite of extremely difficult economic conditions, the national government gave essential funds to the university in order to establish its own national system of public health service as soon as possible.

By August 2nd, 1922, the first class graduated from the Medical Department. Of the 29 graduates, only three were Azeris-A. Alekbekov, Jeyran Sultanova and Adilya Shakhtahtiriskaya-Babayeva.

Medical science during the Soviet period had its own strengths and weaknesses and deserves its own discussion. Today, in the midst of our many difficulties that relate to medical practice, it's important for us to remember how rich our medical heritage is, how much emphasis was placed on matters that related to health and how many great people have contributed to our wealth of knowledge.

Dr. Negar Efendiyev is a Medical Historian at the Academy of Sciences. Dr. Asef Rustamov also contributed to this article. Translation assistance by Maryam Abbasova from Russian and Jala Garibova from Azerbaijani.

From Azerbaijan International (3.4) Winter 1995.
© Azerbaijan International 1995. All rights reserved.

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