Iranian Medicine in Russian Travelogues

  December 20, 2023   Read time 4 min
Iranian Medicine in Russian Travelogues
In the eyes of the travelers, the condition of medicine in Iran was further proof of the general cultural backwardness of the Iranians. The authors often give examples in order to inform their readers and entertain them at the same time. The best example is the article by Sergei Cherniaev “Persian doctors and Persian patients.”

He describes the ignorance of those who claim to be physicians and observes that often it is difficult to draw the line between medicine and superstition, since they have become interconnected. According to Cherniaev, even the best Iranian physicians are not familiar with modern medicine, with anatomy or diagnostics. There is no formal medical school in Iran, no examination for medical licenses, therefore future physicians have to acquire their knowledge on their own; the only way to become known as a physician is to administer a successful treatment.

The Iranians divide all the diseases into hot and cold and treat them accordingly with cold and hot food. For example, fever is considered to be a hot illness, and therefore a patient is treated with cold fruits, such as melons, watermelons, plums and pears, and finally, with pieces of ice. “[After that,] the patient is usually radically cured from all earthly illnesses, i.e., the poor victim, stuffed with raw fruits and ice, goes to the next world and into the embrace of the houris prepared for him by Muhammad.” He gives other examples of ridiculous cures and states: “The Persian physicians are bad, but if we want to be fair, [it must be admitted that] the Persian patients are probably even more stupid.”

According to Cherniaev, the patients follow every piece of advice and at the same time use various medicines recommended by other doctors and friends: Fear of death and the inability to tolerate suffering make Persians extremely cowardly when they are sick. It is almost impossible to encourage such patients. Persian physicians have to treat their adult patients the same way our European physicians treat children. Dr. Eliseev refers to one of the most popular medical procedures in Iran – phlebotomy: Upon entering that small village, we observed the following interesting scene: about fifteen men with their arms exposed were sitting by a ditch and bleeding, with their blood running into the turbid stream. Another Persian was walking proudly next to these voluntary sufferers; he turned out to be a Persian physician, and the bloodied people his patients who were undergoing phlebotomy.

Eliseev was also highly critical of the “medical” room at Tehran University, where the students would gather to listen to “probably the Professor of Medicine who did not even need a clinic for his teaching.” And after visiting a hospital in Tehran for 30 patients he noted derisively that “the doctors who had received home education were using any crude Persian methods and had no idea of real medicine.” D. Zhukovskaia gives a detailed description of phlebotomy, “a very dangerous custom” and concludes: “The Persians, men and women alike, are very much afraid of ‘the excessive’ blood in their bodies, therefore the mania for ‘bloodletting’ is incredibly widespread among them.28 Similar impressions concerning the ignorance of most Iranian physicians are echoed by Minkevich and Dr. Mark in their travelogues.

Doctor N. Solovkin includes the rules of Iranian etiquette for visiting a sick person in his overview of Iranian medicine: Upon entering the sickroom, one should have a pleasant and cheerful expression on one’s face. One should wear neither new nor very old clothes for the visit. Upon entering the room with a smile, one should sit near the sick person’s head; he should not stare into his face for a long time, but should put his hand on the sick person’s forehead or his hand, and ask how he feels by day and by night. One should not visit the sick every day; after every visit one should wait two days and then visit him again. It is good to recommend a medicine to the sick, if one knows that it cured someone of the same illness. Sometimes several tens of friends and advisers gather in the room of a sick person. In this case, heated arguments start [over whether] the sick person should or should not take one medicine or another; decisions are often taken by vote; the sick person obediently swallows huge amounts of some disgusting slops – an infusion of herbs, known to nobody except for the quack.

One of the travelers, the anonymous author of a letter from Tehran, has a positive opinion about a Persian doctor, a court physician Mirza Baba; however, he considers him to be an exception among the Iranians: “Every morning, his waiting-room was filled with poor people whom he treated and provided with medicine for free; often he happened to save those miserable people’s lives, the sad present of fate, but still a precious one.”

Write your comment