Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Beth Baron

Committee Members

Samira Haj

Andreas Killen

Megan Vaughan

Leslie Peirce

Subject Categories

History of Gender | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Islamic World and Near East History | Women's History


Ottoman Empire, medicine, gender and sexuality in Ottoman society, prostitution, masculinity, World War I, syphilis, bacteriology


This dissertation investigates the circulation of modern scientific and medical knowledge among Ottoman physicians, bureaucrats, and populations alongside traditional medical practices that shaped individual and popular understandings of disease, sexuality, and morality in the late Ottoman Empire. Although syphilis had existed in Ottoman society since the sixteenth century, it became an alarming medical and social phenomenon as a consequence of intensified mobility in the second half of the century, particularly among migrants, soldiers, and seasonal workers traveling to and from the Ottoman countryside. Ottoman authorities sought to prevent the spread of syphilis by organizing medical campaigns and implementing strict regulation of all syphilitics, men and women alike. Syphilis provoked a unique combination of fear, shame, and secrecy that was connected to both sex and the absence of a successful treatment. The malady shaped the ways in which Ottoman physicians formulated socio-medical prescriptions, which in turn re-fashioned gender roles and sexual norms and led to the medicalization of love, marriage, and desire.

This study demonstrates that the making of medical knowledge and practices played a significant role in the configuration of modern Ottoman governance and its goal of disciplining the bodies, minds, and sexuality of citizens. While Ottoman physicians sought to control the spread and impact of syphilis by adopting modern medical methods, they also had to confront and compete with the local forms of medical practices, particularly in the rural context. Ottoman medical authorities cultivated not only modern medical practices but also new understandings of disease, hygiene, and morality. Syphilis, a sexually-transmitted diseases that also existed and spread in non-sexual “innocent” forms, enabled Ottoman authorities to re-frame the premises of public health, and to expand their involvement in the most private and intimate domains of everyday life. Marriage, love, and desire, I argue, came to be medicalized in the time of syphilis. Confronting syphilis also prompted Ottoman physicians to write and talk publicly about matters that were formerly considered private, and even taboo. While Ottoman authorities earlier focused on the destructive impact of the disease in relation to depopulation and framed it as a medical and social problem related to the health of the empire, over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century syphilis also became inextricably linked to social degeneration. By the First World War, it had become associated with immorality and prostitution and the unprecedented events leading to the demise of the Ottoman Empire.

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