History as Compassion

November 29, 2012
History as Compassion
Ahmed Ragab

HDS professor Ahmed Ragab was a medical student at Cairo University in the early 2000s when he first walked into Egypt's 700-year-old Mansuri Hospital.

A 1992 earthquake that had left thousands wounded or dead also forced the closure of Mansuri, an institution that had provided care to Cairo's citizens for centuries. Though the site was officially off-limits, Ragab felt drawn to it and slipped in.

"When I walked into the building, I got a sense of who the patients were and what they endured," he says. "These were poor people who couldn't pay for a doctor to come and treat them at home. Many were malnourished. Many were too sick for their families to take care of them. Some had no family or were mentally ill. Their experience called for a historian to tell their story."

Today, Ragab is both a physician and a historian whose research on the Islamic hospital gives voice to those who filled the wards of Mansuri and other institutions throughout the centuries. He says that this work—as well as his other research on the development of science and its relationship with religion in the medieval and modern Middle East—can help leaders grapple with the global health care crisis today by enabling them to understand how the system developed.

"The history of the Islamic hospital illustrates many of the problems we face in improving global health today: the cost of care, epidemics, poor hygiene, poor nutrition, and so on," he says. "As we aim to improve or change health care systems and practice, it's important to know how these institutions developed and to know how they worked in different parts of the world."

Ragab first became interested in the history of hospitals as a medical student. One of his professors was writing a history of Cairo University's medical school, the oldest in the region. Ragab finished his degree and entered practice as a physician at the university's teaching hospital, but his passion for history remained. Before long he landed at the École Pratiques des Hautes Études in Paris, where he obtained his doctorate and wrote his dissertation on Mansuri Hospital.

"My decision to shift from medicine to history was based on the idea that we need to understand how science functions," he says. "Science is not produced or consumed in a vacuum. It's produced by people who have particular biases and who think and work in the context of a society and culture."

After some time at the Centre d'Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et Sociales in Cairo, where he directed the organization's Science and Religion and History of Science programs, Ragab came to Harvard. A generous gift from the late Richard T. Watson, AB '54, JD '60, made Ragab the Divinity School's first assistant professor of science and religion and solidified his place on the faculty.

He says that HDS is an ideal place for a historian who is interested in the way that culture, religion, and science interact in the creation of knowledge.

"The HDS approach is very different from that of other institutions," he says. "Most institutions look primarily at how scientists and theologians converse, and at the question of whether science and religion can coexist. Here we dig deeper to see how both disciplines are part of a larger cultural setting that influences how we know what we know."

Though his research addresses important theoretical questions that exist at the intersection of science, religion, and culture, Ragab says that his work on the Islamic hospital will always be driven by his desire to honor the experience of patients—many of whom suffered hardship and humiliation—as well as the friends and family who loved them.

"This work is not only about medical theory, techniques, or big figures in medicine," he explains.

"It's about the experience of a person in the hospital—ordinary people moving around, leaving a loved one, and having to suffer in a public hospital, as many people did around the world. I can never know the exact way that these people felt, but the attempt is in itself a fulfilling experience and an act of compassion."

—by Paul Massari