A Regional History of Medicine in the Middle East

Revision of Personal diaries and correspondences found in our last visit to the Ein Karem Medical Library from Wed, 01/03/2018 - 13:23

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Posted on January 3, 2018 by Liat Kozma

In December 2017, our team visited the Ein Karem Medical Library, and the library's team to sort and catalogue its untapped collection. We discovered personal correspondences and diaries of early-twentieth century Jewish doctors, such as Hillel Yaffe, Batsheva Yunes and more. 

Written by Samir Ben Layashi


Contrary to the usual individual way of working in an archive, we – the researchers of the Regional History of Medicine in the Middle East project – paid a collective visit to the Hadassah Hospital Medical Library in Ein Karem, Jerusalem. We went there to visit the library and not the “archival room,” as we were not even aware of its existence. The room contains several boxes and many other books, pictures, and different commodities. It was revealed to us in passing during our guided tour by a librarian. After enumerating the relevant data bases and what can or cannot be found there, the librarian casually mentioned boxes of “un-catalogued” material that “have been sitting on a shelf for years..., they belong to the Jewish doctors who worked in the past at Hadassah Hospital or taught at its medical school.”

The documents, files and the whole caboodle were not classified, numbered or cataloged, but compiled in the medical library and literally stored in one of its rooms. Though not pertaining directly to any of our individual research projects, the thought of these documents, lying on a shelf in a dark and dusty room, was enough to stir us into action. Our enthusiasm was infectious and the librarians were motivated to open the boxes and finally catalogue the documents and digitize many of them. We divided ourselves into two groups, and allotted days for sessions in which to get together and sift through the material.

In the last decade, the great promise of digitalization has enabled libraries to eliminate their paper stacks and replace shelves with computer rooms. As most current scientific journals are now available on-line, and increasingly more historical sources are made available through high-quality OCR-enabled scanning, book shelves increasingly seem redundant. This explains, probably, why the librarian who introduced us to the library’s databases was at first very pessimistic about our prospects of finding anything historical in her library, which used to be one of the best libraries for the history of medicine. By the way, this was the same librarian who would make, later on, a sort of an apologetic remark: “Nobody wants to be examined by a doctor who read a four-year-old medical article,” while showing us the library’s super-sophisticated on-line digital catalogs. That sounded like an elegiac response to what libraries, and particularly science libraries, are undergoing elsewhere as well – the elimination of their past.

To make space for computer rooms and seminar rooms, the library's collection of medical journals was eliminated and recycled. As the library is designed to serve medical students, who have no interest in vintage articles, early twentieth-century journals, which are – or are likely to be – eventually scanned, are of no use to them. For those of us who visited the library only a couple of years ago, this was devastating news. Medical journals from North Africa, which somehow found their way to Jerusalem, were not available in their homeland, and now neither in Jerusalem. We later learned that pre-WWII German journals, which are not available in their homeland today, were also thrown away, . Although beyond the scope of our research, as historians, these developments broke our hearts.

To our astonishment, during our second visit, the same librarian who was pessimistic about finding historical material in the library, prepared for us a 146-year-old document in Arabic, that used to be framed, which the library inherited from a museum of the history of medicine, which no longer exists. Along with it was a short excerpt in English. This was a letter of gratitude to Dr. Frenkel (1809-1880), honoring his fifteen years of medical services in Jerusalem, signed by “seventeen dignitaries,” whose names were not mentioned in the translation. A brief glance at the original text revealed them to be the mufti of Jerusalem, naqib al-ashraf and more. The librarian could have found no better way to draw all of us into a remarkable excavation throughout the archeology of medical knowledge in Mandatory Palestine, and later on, after 1948, in the State of Israel.

In future visits, we wondered: “We are interested in the Arab doctors, aren’t we,” we whispered to ourselves rather to each other, while selecting and putting each document carefully in a special plastic sheet so as to be able, later on, to scan them at a high resolution and upload them to their respective catalogues.

On one of the days of our exploring, a box labeled “Doctor Hillel Yoffe” was awaiting us on the long table in the assigned room. We were told the box was not necessarily his personal archive but rather documents pertaining to him that somehow, at some point, were placed together in a box. Many documents were in Hebrew, French, English, German, Ottoman Turkish, and even Dutch. References are to Arab doctors, Arab patients, or Palestinian Arabs in general are rare. When they are occasionally mentioned, they are labeled Arabs, workers, guides, natives and very seldom is any Arab given a name. Among the few references to Arabs that we stumbled upon left us with a haunting visual: a photo of Dr. Hillel Yoffe with what Yoffe himself labeled as “four little Arabs.”

The librarians were not indifferent to our enthusiasm and even wanted to share it with us, bringing moe and more documents and putting them on a long table in one of the study rooms of the library. In a sort of hungry commensality, we were serving ourselves without thinking about the library or archival manners. In the midst of the excitement, when we finally found a name of an Arab doctor, one of the librarian who until then was feeding us generously, turned to us and asked on an almost accusatory tone: “Are you speaking in Arabic on purpose so that we do not understand you?”

But can documents of this sort, written by iconic figures of the Yishuv in a very condensed time in the history of Mandatory Palestine, help us unearth the authentic voice of any Arab who dwelled within the geographic territory of historical Palestine, let alone Palestinian doctors and Palestinian patients? We, the researchers of the project, doubt it. Rather, the documents allow us to step into the heart of the Zionist experience in Mandatory Palestine. They depict solely Jewish doctors (European and Russian) on their colonial-settling-hygienic-mission: fighting malaria, purchasing lands from their owners, the Palestinian fellahs, on which to build Jewish iconic institutions, e.g., the Technion or the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, etc. To be honest, this left some of us feeling uneasy, to say the least. However, none of us is a dupe. It is not out of the correspondence between our Jewish doctors and Theodor Herzl that our researchers aspire to resurrect the Palestinian spirit. Nevertheless, none of us can allow him/herself to turn a blind eye to these documents, for the simple reason that they belong to the same spatiotemporal framework as that in which our project is operating. Ignoring the deeds and the voices of some of the actors who were there – any actors and not only the protagonists – would be an aberration of the act of writing history. Every voice has to be discovered and every historical document has to be preserved.

The personal archives we helped tracing and cataloguing are now available on-line, here.


Ein Karem Medical Library

Ein Karem Medical Library