The Venture of Medical Humanities in Turkey

In his first post for the Medical Humanities blog, Ahmet Karakaya of Istanbul University’s Medical Faculty explores the development of medical humanities education in Turkey.

In Turkey, the field of medical humanities, like in many European countries, is developing rapidly. Although it seems that there are a lack of long-terms debates on bioethical discussions in Turkey, unlike in many Western countries, medical humanities education in Turkey has a very long history indeed. Medical humanities studies in Turkey are twofold: studies in universities, and in charitable foundations. In Turkish academia there is a common trend towards attaching the medical humanities curriculum to medical education. Therefore, undergraduate medical faculty students are required to take medical humanities courses throughout their medical education. As part of their programme, courses including medical history, medical ethics, clinical ethics, philosophy of medicine, and science are added to the curriculum. The main goal of these courses is to help medical students to gain basic skills in medical deontology. Although undergraduate-level courses on medical humanities are offered in almost all Turkish universities, postgraduate education is only offered in two of them, Istanbul University and Ankara University. In order to follow the venture of medical humanities studies in Turkey, I will briefly explain the foundation and the development of the first medical faculty established in Turkey and its medical humanities curriculum.

Although the root of the medical faculty in Istanbul can be traced back to the fifteenth century, the first modern medical school was established on the 14th of March 1827. This medical school was named Tıphane-i Amire when it was first established and it has continued to exist under various names. The first ‘History of Medicine’ course in this school was taught in the 1856-1857 academic year by an English physician, Dr. Charles Edwards. Dr. Edwards was a physician in the Ottoman army during the Crimean War and he was the personal doctor of Sultan Abdulmecid’s daughter, Refia Hanim, at the same time. Along with the history of medicine course, ‘Medical Deontology’ courses were taught in 1876. The instructor of Medical Deontology course, Dr. Hovsep Nurican (or Joseph Nouridjan) was an Armenian physician and the author of several important books including Précis de Déontologie Médicale and Aperçu Historique Sur la Médecine. These books are considered  cornerstones of medical humanities education at that time. History of medicine and medical deontology courses were taught under different names until 1933. Following the abolition of the Ottoman university, Dar’ul Fünun, (House of Knowledge) and re-establishment of Istanbul University in 1933, foreign scientists (especially the German ones) have been invited to Turkey and have played an important role with their significant contributions to the university reform process and medical education as well. Within this university reform process, the Department of History of Medicine and Medical Deontology was set up in Istanbul University, Istanbul Medical Faculty. Dr. A. Süheyl Ünver (1898-1986) was appointed as the first chair of the department and the name of the department was changed to the Institute of Medical History. In this period, a museum, a library and an archive for the history of medicine were established. Although initially medical history courses were predominantly taught in this institute, following the development of medical technology and consequently the urgent need for ethical debates, medical ethics courses have become more predominant.

Along with the medical humanities education in universities, foundations and non-academic institutions play a significant role in medical humanities studies in Turkey. There are some charitable foundations which provide a significant ground for medical humanities studies; these foundations include Besikcizade Centre for Medical Humanities, Istanbul Foundation for Research and Education, Orient-Institut Istanbul, Institution of Turkish Medical History, and the Turkish Bioethics Association. These centres provide an interdisciplinary approach to analyse biomedical problems. Scholars from various disciplines including medicine, ethics, theology, philosophy, and sociology are coming together in the endeavour to facilitate a discussion of issues arising out of medical research and practice. Pursuing these institutions will help us to understand the venture of medical humanities studies in Turkey and I will mention the foremost one, Besikcizade Centre for Medical Humanities, in the next piece.