Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program


Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

Spring 4-22-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Nancy Reynolds


Psychiatrists in Syria presented mental health treatment to Syrians as more than just a way to control or cure mental illness, but as a modernizing worldview to combat popular ideas about the origins of mental illness. When the Ibn Sina Mental Hospital was founded near Damascus in 1922, staff were careful to strip treatment of religious meaning. While the physicians were trained in French psychiatric methods, they neither attempted "moral healing" nor imposed religious instruction, as at other hospitals in the region such as the Protestant medical missionary-run Asfuriyeh near Beirut. Ibn Sina hospital staff were so careful to present a purely psychiatric framework for illness that they distanced themselves almost completely from vernacular healing. This decision, perhaps ironically, hastened a vernacular-psychiatric division in the medical landscape of the mid-twentieth century where healing systems in other parts of the Middle East had begun to integrate local customs. Treatment devoid of spiritual therapies ultimately delegitimized psychiatry among lower classes. Prior to the 1950s, patients and their families saw little evidence that psychiatry could be as curative for disordered minds as biomedicine appeared to be for diseased bodies. Mental health was one of the few arenas in medical care that left room for other voices to challenge the hegemonic nature of biomedicine and the notion of a medical modernity. Local families saw vernacular healers as more trustworthy in their local ties, familiar healing practices, and separation from colonizers' medical training. For all these reasons, the mental health landscape for Syrians in the early and mid-twentieth century remained open to non-psychiatric alternatives.

This research relies in large part on annual reports from Asfuriyeh Hospital, patient case files from Ibn Sina Mental Hospital, medical journals, ethnographic reports from the early and mid-twentieth century, and interviews with Syrian psychiatrists collected between 2008 and 2010.



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