Articles in this series:
Series: Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
01. Ethiopia’s Historic Quest for Medicine
Medical Activities in Early Times
Though Ethiopia long had its own system of medical lore, and a remarkably extensive local traditional pharmacopoeia, the people of the country were for centuries deeply interested in foreign medical practices of all kinds.
The Sixteenth Century
Evidence of Ethiopia’s historic thirst for foreign medicine can be traced back to at least the early sixteenth century. A member of the first Portuguese mission to Ethiopia, Joao Bermudes, who arrived in the country in the 1520s, claimed to be skilled in European medicine. He was in consequence warmly received at the Ethiopian court. The then reigning monarch, Emperor Lebna Dengel, was so impressed by Bermudes that he did not allow him to leave the country.
Lebna Dengel was also deeply interested in acquiring foreign medicine. He accordingly wrote to King Joao of Portugal, in 1521, asking the latter to send him “men who made medicines, and physicians, and surgeons to cure illnesses.”
A German Missionary in 17th Century Gondar
A century or so later, a German Lutheran missionary, Peter Heiling, earned great popularity by practicing medicine in the then Ethiopian capital, Gondar. Ludolf, the renowned German historian of Ethiopia, recalls that Heiling, immediately after his arrival, “took up his abode in a Church, not far from the Court,” and “as soon as he was settled in his new mansion, began to practice Physick,” i.e. medicine.
Emperor Iyasu I
Considerable interest in foreign medicine was later also displayed by Emperor Iyasu I, perhaps the greatest of the rulers of Gondar. In 1699 he sent his commercial agent, Haji Ali, to Cairo with instructions, among other things, to obtain medical assistance, as he was then suffering from a troublesome skin complaint. The French consul in Cairo, M. de Maillet, responded by arranging for a local French physician, Dr Charles Poncet, to visit the Ethiopian capital, to treat the Emperor.
Poncet duly reached Gondar, in July 1699, and received a particularly friendly welcome from the monarch.”An apartment,” Poncet later recalled, “was prepared for me, near to one of the Emperor’s children. I had the honour the next day to see His Majesty, who gave me several marks of his goodness… He came almost every day to see me, through a little gallery which communicated with his apartment.”
Poncet, unfortunately, gives us only the barest information on Iyasu’s illness. He states merely that the monarch, and one of the latter’s sons, were suffering from what he calls “a scorbutic habit, which threatened to turn into a leprosy.” The two royal patients, he relates, duly “began their course of physic.” Both of them followed his medical instructions so “exactly” that his treatment was “so successful that in a little time they were perfectly cured.”
“A Little Chest of Chemical Medicines”
Iyasu was apparently much interested in Poncet’s medical treatment. The Frenchman reports that he had brought with him “a little chest of chemical medicines,” which had cost him “the labour of six or seven years. The Emperor,” he adds, “informed himself exactly after what manner those medicines were prepared, and how they were to be applied: what effects they produced; for what distempers they were proper. He was not satisfied with only a verbal account of these things, but ordered it to be taken in writing. But what I most admired (i.e. wondered at) was that he seemed to be extremely pleased with the physical reasons I gave him of everything. I taught him the composition of a kind of bezoar (a type of medicine), which I always made use of with great success in intermitting fevers, as the Emperor and two of his sons experienced. He was also curious to see after what manner I extracted essences. Upon this project he sent me to Tzemba, a monastery situated upon the Reb (river), half a league from Gondar. The Abbot, whom the Emperor honours for his virtue and probity, received me with a great deal of civility. There I set up my stoves, and prepared all that was necessary. The Emperor came there incognito. I made several experiments in his presence, and communicated to him many secrets, which he was wonderfully curious to know.”
Poncet also treated Iyasu’s consort, Queen Malakotawit, as well as a number of other prominent personalities. He relates that “Her Majesty consulted me about some of her ailments of which she complained.”
Describing another consultation, and his own belief in the efficacy of prayer, he reports that his Ethiopian hosts asked him to visit a person who was sick. One of those present uttered the word “Mich,” which meant, as Poncet understood the term, “he is struck by the evil spirit.” Elaborating on this matter the Frenchman continues:
“At the time I was at Gondar I heard them often speak of this illness; and the Emperor himself more that once asked my opinion concerning it. I answered that God did not permit those obsessions, but either to punish our sins or to discover his power, that we had an infalable remedy in the sign of the cross; and that the Devil had no power over a true Christian. It is in cases like this that the exorcisms of the Catholic Church are very necessary for effecting cures. One has often seen in these scismatic countries the wonderful efficacy of the prayers of which that Church makes use on such occasions.”
Poncet departed from Gondar in April 1700. He left Iyasu with some familiarity with seventeenth century French medical practice, but no doctor to continue his work.
Wanted: Another Physician
Determined to remedy this deficiency the Emperor wrote, in September 1701, to the French consul in Cairo, begging the latter to send another physician, or surgeon, as well as foreigners with other skills. Nothing, however, seems to have come of the project.
This was, however, by no means the end of the story. The Scottish traveller James Bruce, who visited the country later in the century, claims that a Greek physician, called Demetros, soon entered the Emperor’s service.
Demetros was apparently but one of a number of Greeks who practiced medicine at Gondar, Bruce states that one of the most prominent in the city in his day was a man called Abba Chrisophorus , who served both as a physician and as a priest.
What Bruce Learnt from Mr Ball
Bruce himself acquired much of his reputation in Ethiopia on account of his medical knowledge, which was, however, far from profound. He relates in his autobiographical memoir, the “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile,” that while in Algiers, prior to his visit to Ethiopia, he had made friends with the surgeon to the British community, a certain Mr Ball. The Scotsman adds that Ball,”a man of considerable merit in his profession,” did not, “grudge his time or his pains in the instruction he gave me.”
“I flatter myself, no offence I hope”
The result of this, and other medical study, Bruce, somewhat pompously claims, was that:
“I had made myself master of the art of bleeding, which I found consisted of a little attention, and overcoming that diffidence which the ignorance how the parts (of the body) lie occasions. Mr Ball had shown me the manner of applying several sorts of bandages, and gave me an idea of dressing some kinds of sores and wounds. Frequent very useful lessons, which I also received from my friend Doctor Russell at Aleppo, contributed greatly to improve me afterwards in the knowledge of physic and surgery. I had a small chest of the most efficacious medicines, a dispensary to teach me to compound others that were needful, and some short treatises upon the acute diseases of several countries of the tropics. Thus instructed I flatter myself, no offence I hope, I did not occasion a greater mortality among the Mahometans and Pagans abroad, than may be attributed to some of my brother physicians among their fellow Christians at home.”