93 YEARS OF HISTORY
INTERVIEW WITH İHSAN DOĞRAMACI, ONE OF THE FOUNDERS OF THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION
YAVUZ MEHMET KONTAS, LIAISON OFFICER, WHO TURKEY
Professor İhsan Doğramaci is one of the major figures in international child health and higher education and has been for over half a century. During his 93 years, he has witnessed and contributed to the momentous upheavals and events of the 20th century, including the founding of the United Nations and its agencies.
ProfessorDoğramaci is one of the founders of the World Health Organization and its loyal supporter ever since. At a young age of 93, he is perhaps the only living signatory of the WHO Consitution. He shares with us the historical event as well as some highlights of the past 90 years in the next few pages. Then, at the age of 31, perhaps he was one of the youngest participants of the WHO Assembly. He is an active promoter of UNICEF as its senior advisor and the longest serving member on its Executive Board. As President, Executive Director and Honorary President of the International Pediatric Association over the past fifty years and as President and Honorary President of the International Children’s Centre, Professor Doğramaci is a truly remarkable leader, eminent scientist and the pride of his nation.
Professor Doğramaci has invested his energies in improving higher education. He founded a major children’s teaching hospital and two universities in Turkey, universities emphasizing not only science and health but also the arts. His broad interest in music, the arts and sciences is almost unique for one who has devoted his life to medicine.
Let me start by asking you when and
where were you born, and where did
you go to school?
Well, you are asking me about the early years of my life. In the year 1915, I was born in a Turcoman town in Northern Mesopotamia. Then, that was part of Ottoman Empire. The township, the name of the town was Erbil, close to Mosul, and inhabitants were almost a hundred percent composed of Turcomans, ethnic Turks. There, the primary education was in Turkish. So I went to a Turkish primary school there. And at the end, to continue my secondary education, high school, my family sent me to Beirut, to the American University of Beirut’s Preparatory School, the high school attached to that university. Already at Erbil, although the medium of instruction was Turkish, we were also having some classes in English. And my medium of instruction in Beirut was, of course, English. Following that, I thought I better continue my studies in medicine. And, even at that younger age, I wanted to become a pediatrician, to take care of children.
There is a story about that, which is often related by my family members. They say, when I was 5, 6 or 7 years old, I often would come home barefooted, leaving my shoes in the street and without coats. And I would say, “On the street I saw a very poor child. I thought I’d better give my coat and my shoes to him, and I had spare ones at home anyway.” Well, since then I always thought of those who were not enjoying life the way those who were in a better financial state. So maybe that was one reason why I wanted to continue my studies in helping children, in disease and in health. So that’s the beginning of my early life.
How did you first get involved
That’s a good question. After finishing my studies in Istanbul Medical School, I became assistant to Professor Albert Eckstein, one of those who had left the Nazi regime and one of those who were invited by Turkey to continue their work in Turkey. And Eckstein was one of them; he was an internationally known pediatrician and he took me as his assistant. After being certified as a pediatrician, part of my family was in Iraq then. As I said earlier, during World War I, and especially in the Northern region, the Mosul question, because of petroleum, was not yet settled.
So families were split in many ways, and, in the case of my family I should say, my grandfather was a member of Turkish Parliament in Istanbul. My own father was member of Iraqi senate. Because, after the war Iraq had been established as an independent country. My wife’s uncle was grand vizier, or prime minister if you want to call it, during the Ottoman regime. And her father was speaker of the National Assembly and later Prime Minister in Iraq. So in that area, people were ethnically Turks but separated because of the results of the war. So the families were in many ways “bi-citizens,” many of them carrying two passports. After I finished my pediatrics training I went to Baghdad and spent four years as pediatrician to the child welfare hospital there.
While there I married my wife, and soon after that while in Baghdad I received, I obtained I should say, a United States Department of State fellowship to continue studies in the United States, one year in Boston at Harvard University, and the other in St Louis, Missouri, Washington University. While there, doing postgraduate research in child health in St Louis, I received a telephone call from Washington DC from then the Iraqi ambassador to Washington, Ali Cevdet Eyubi, a family friend. He said that I could go to Washington to represent Iraq on the newly established World Health Assembly. Well, I got two or three weeks’ leave of absence from the university and went to Washington, and there I met another gentleman, Dr Shawkat Zahawi. He had been appointed to represent Iraq at the Assembly. So the Ambassador said: “All right, now we have two representatives. Both of you go there.” So, that was fun, because indeed that was a gathering that I never expected would be so important. And I was perhaps the youngest person there.
When I returned to Ankara, on several occasions I was sent to Geneva to represent Turkey at the World Health Assembly. I was made member of several committees in charge of human development, research and sanitation and what have you. Perhaps becuase of my young age they wanted to give me more work than the average member. But that was fun, and there again I was given assignments to help establishment of health centers in different countries: in Africa, in South America, in Canada. Indeed, that was in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and Ife, Nigeria, where new health centers, tertiary-level health educational centers, were being established, and they had asked WHO assistance. So I was commissioned on behalf of WHO to go to these places. I went to Yaoundé, I went to Ife in Nigeria, and I went to Brasilia, the newly established capital, and later to Sherbrooke, Canada, all the time on behalf of WHO. While doing that, I should confess, I learned perhaps more than I taught there. But that was great fun. That was my first active involvement in the work of WHO.
What would you consider to be
the role of WHO in today’s world?
If you go back 60 years earlier, one wouldn’t imagine that in some years variola, smallpox, would be wiped out on our globe, but it did happen. That’s a miracle. And it seems that pretty soon the same will be the case with polio. There are other diseases which could be eradicated by vaccination, but especially in less developed countries of our globe these are still there. So it’s unfortunate to see while it’s so possible to eradicate these, they are still there. One other, perhaps less promising matter, is the establishment of new diseases. For example, the avian flu and then AIDS; these were not there before. So in some way new diseases are apt to be seen, and I think more active measures should be taken. The World Health Organization is a machinery, perhaps the most active, in establishing better health internationally. But we shouldn’t be too optimistic. Because other new diseases may come up and we should be ready to campaign those as well.
What message would you like to give
to the current members of WHO?
WHO is extremely active. But in many areas of health, one sector cannot do it alone; it has to have cooperation. For example, for better health we need water. Environmental factors are very important. And above all the armed conflicts within a country or internationally wars are killing people. And there must be something to be done to stop that nonsense, war. I think this one important matter, if you ask me the priority, is, to say to have peace. Peace will contribute a lot more than millions of dollars worth of equipment. So I think peace is extremely important. The next important matter would be education. Educating mothers would lead to better, healthier babies to be born. So education is of course, a very important matter. But in addition to that, the health sector has to have cooperation with other sectors: agriculture, environment and what have you. But my hope is, looking back at what has happened during the past 60 years, I’m very optimistic that within not 60, but maybe 20 years, we shall be having a better world to live on.
Then, I should say, souvenirs that I will treasure include my being honoured by receiving the Léon Bernard Foundation Prize and then a golden medal for “Health for All” from the World Health Organization. Of course, the fact that I am one of the those who have signed the constitution of WHO 60 years earlier and I still am alive, perhaps the only living signatory, is another privilege that I will treasure forever.
How do you feel about the future?
Are you hopeful?
If man-made hazards such as war are stopped, if the least developed countries economically become better equipped with essentials of life, I believe with these two factors we shall have a better globe to live on. I have always been optimistic and I continue to be that.
If you had one wish for the future
of health what would that be?
International peace. think that because it is foolish while we are trying to save a child from disease so much effort is done. And all of us because of armed conflict; they come and just kill infants, innocent people, bomb them. And especially nuclear warfare is certainly unbelievable. I think these should be stopped in some way or other. But I am very optimistic for future, and I do hope if half what has happened in the past 60 years will happen during the next 30 years, we will be having a better world to live on.