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October 8: Modernizing Medicine in Iran

Lawrence Bush
October 7, 2016
Jakob Eduard Polak, an Austrian physician and writer who modernized Persian medicine by teaching for a decade at Dar ul-Fonun, the first modern university in Tehran, and who served as the Shah of Iran’s personal doctor for five years, died at 72 on this date in 1891. Polak was one of the six Austrian teachers invited by Amir Kabir, the Persian chief minister, to teach at Dar ul-Fonun. “The first curriculum of the Dar ul-Fonun was geared toward military training,” writes Christoph Werner at the Encyclopaedia Iranica, “and Western medicine was included because the health care of soldiers was recognized as a crucial aspect of modern warfare. . . . Polak’s principal task was the training of a new type of army physicians without antagonizing the established health care professionals.” He was “the first to regularly operate on unconscious patients, and he himself counts a total of 158 bladder stone operations.” He was also the first to perform dissections in Iran (prohibited by Islamic law), and to teach human anatomy using corpses. He also compiled a medical dictionary in Persian, Arabic, and Latin, and founded a state surgery clinic with sixty beds. Polak taught himself Persian in six months, and wrote a highly respected ethnography and travelogue about 19th-century Iran. “Well-informed because of his access to various social groups and his excellent knowledge of Persian, Polak treats many topics, ranging from the characteristics of the Persian bath to the breeds of Iranian horses. The discussed issues include: food and cooking; clothing; sleep and sports; family life and sexuality; servants and slaves; education and culture; law and religion; cemeteries; Nowruz celebrations; Nāṣer-al-Din’s government and court; travel and infrastructure; public security; industry, commerce, and agriculture.” --Christoph Werner

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.