Men in suits greet DeBakey as he leaves a plane.

DeBakey in Baghdad and Beirut: The Internationalization of Surgical Education, 1945–1970

Sara Farhan, Ph.D. will speak on Wednesday, September 9, 2020 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Farhan is Assistant Professor of History, Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah and a 2019 NLM Michael E. DeBakey Fellow in the History of Medicine. Circulating Now interviewed her about her upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like? 

A photograph of a woman.Sara Farhan: I work on the history of medicine in the modern Middle East. I am currently interested in the history of medical education, professionalism, and institutionalisation. I am from Mosul, Iraq. I pursued and completed my education in Canada. I currently teach history in the Department of International Studies at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE. My penchant for history of medicine developed during my undergraduate days. I was a biology major with a keen interest in history. But after unravelling great grey owl pellets for an entire summer, I decided to marry my interests and pursue a Masters of Art in history. While in grad school, I was working fulltime with vulnerable populations in methadone clinics, homeless shelters, and substance withdrawal centres. Although this work experience helped me pay for my schooling, I was also able to stay connected to the realities facing society’s most vulnerable populations. This experience shaped the vision for my doctoral research. I was particularly interested in the history of patient-medical labour interactions, public health policy, professionalization, and medical education. 

CN: Your field is international studies, what draws you specifically to the study of medical history in an international context?

SF: Throughout my academic career, I have been fortunate enough to interact with interdisciplinary scholars who encouraged me to position history within broader conceptualization rooted in philosophical, anthropological, and psychological theories. This experience shaped my current approach to studying the past. As a historian working in an interdisciplinary department, I appreciate the challenge to conceptualize history beyond dates and events. And, as a historian working on medicine in the modern Middle East, I use scientific and medical research from various conjectures as raw sources of history. It is under this capacity that my current research on the internationalization of surgical education took form. Pedagogy and course modules share a lot in common, be it in Canada, United States, or in the UAE. Identifying common and shared experiences in different disciplines and colleges helps us centralize social actors within broader medical histories. Pointedly, surgical education in Baylor, Beirut, and Baghdad followed similar pedagogical patterns, experienced similar epistemological shifts, and produced similar medical professionals. Ruptures in continuities and unique experienced are of course present throughout this otherwise shared experience.

CN: Tell us a little about the focus on medical education you’ll cover in your upcoming talk “DeBakey in Baghdad and Beirut: The Internationalization of Surgical Education, 1945–1970.”

DeBakey poses in a doorway in a labcoat.
Dr. Michael E. DeBakey, 1964
National Library of Medicine #101743405X11

SF: This current study is part of the research I conducted during my time at the National Library of Medicine as a Michael E. DeBakey History of Medicine fellow. The present study focuses on the internationalization of surgical education. I trace the trajectory of surgical education in the modern Middle East by connecting trends, departures, and developments to the ones emerging in the United States, and in particular to Dr. Debakey’s experience as a professor at various medical institutions. I argue that in the aftermath of World War Two, surgical education employed pedagogical modules that connected specialists and instructors alike across the globe. I compare the curricula of two medical colleges in the Middle East, in Baghdad and Beirut to pedagogies used in the United States and in particular to Dr. Debakey’s contributions to medical education. From research conducted in Baghdad, Beirut, London, and Bethesda, I argue that from 1945–1970, the internationalisation of medical education, and specifically surgery, shared common pedagogical developments. In employing a transnational approach to studying the history of medical education, this study asserts that doctors forged international networks centred on education and lifelong learning. Pointedly, cardiovascular surgical pedagogies offered in Beirut and Baghdad are not unlike the modules delivered in the United States. These commonalities indicate that the development of medical education operated along intricate and complex symbiosis where the sharing of knowledge and research transcended national borders.

CN: What do the specifics of surgical education in the Middle East tell us about how medical knowledge travels?

Ten people standon the stairs to an airplaine.
Michael DeBakey and his cardiovascular team about to board a plane for Italy and Yugoslavia, 1967
National Library of Medicine #101743405X75

SF: One of the pressing themes of this study is centred on the shared experience of established doctors and aspiring medical students in different parts of the world. My research aims to deconstruct the notion that western medicine is modern medicine. Instead, I demonstrate how medical professionals in Baghdad and Beirut interacted with new medical and scientific research and practices emerging within and outside their locale. Central to my discussion is Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey. His Lebanese heritage plays a crucial role in how medical students and practicing doctors in the Middle East negotiated and harmonized their practice with new scientific innovations and research. Debakey’s presence in various medical journals and encyclopaedias is situated alongside other prominent Arab personalities in the history of medicine. This presentation, I argue, is part of long historical continuities that stress that medical knowledge in the Middle East was not divided as west versus the orient. Moreover, DeBakey’s contribution to the development of medical education, and in particular surgical education, was a source of pride to many medical students. DeBakey travelled to the Middle East and provided lectures to the medical colleges in Beirut and Baghdad in the 1950s at a time when heightened Arab Nationalism was sweeping across the region. DeBakey’s visit occurred at a particular juncture when doctors were pursuing postgraduate education in the United States more so than in Europe. While this geopolitical shift has been linked to changing strategic alliances, my other work demonstrates that with the damage European universities (in particular England, France, and Germany) incurred as a result of the devastations of World War Two, the United State’s quick resolve contributed to its emergence as a pedagogical authority in medical education. I add to this contention by centralizing DeBakey’s Lebanese heritage to the narrative. DeBakey’s plural identities played an important role in this process. Arab practitioners recognized their similarities to DeBakey through a shared profession and, undoubtedly, their heritage.

CN: You’ve studied Dr. DeBakey’s international reach, is there a particular story you like to share?

Men in suits greet DeBakey as he leaves a plane.
Michael DeBakey being greeted upon his arrival in Beirut, Lebanon, 1965
National Library of Medicine #101743405X84

SF: One of the most interesting components of my research was relayed to me in interviews with prominent doctors in the Middle East who were pursuing their medical studies when DeBakey visited their lecture halls in the 1950s. While recalling the time “the great Dabghi [DeBakey] came to our school” one interviewee was so elated to attend DeBakey’s address that he “wanted to ensure that my coat was pressed before attendance.” The interviewee informed me that he believes he is a distant relative of DeBakey, a factor that undoubtedly added to his excitement regarding the anticipated encounter. The eager student took his coat to a local seamstress to ensure that it was cleaned and pressed for the occasion. However, upon returning to retrieve the coat, the excited student was immediately disappointed to learn that the seamstress had gone to Zahle (West-central Lebanon) to attend a wedding. Panicked, the student rushed to campus so as to not miss his chance of meeting DeBakey. Unfortunately and because he lacked proper attire, the student was refused entry into the lecture theatre where DeBakey was scheduled to deliver an address. He was particularly upset when he learnt that his colleagues managed to meet DeBakey and “they shared a photo.”

DeBakey’s time in the Middle East is fascinating and filled with activity. According to the personal archives held at the NLM, in 1954, DeBakey was invited to present at the Fourth Middle East Medical Assembly held in Beirut, Lebanon. While the conference was scheduled for April 9–11, he remained in the region for almost the entire month. His journey consisted of one international conference, series of lectures held at four different medical colleges spread across three countries, and, of course tourism.

Sara Farhan’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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