Lives of the fellows

Ihsan Dogramaci

b.3 April 1915 d.25 February 2010
MD Istanbul(1938) Hon LLD Nebraska(1965) FRCP(1971) Dr hc Nice(1973) Hon RCPCH(1996) Hon FAAP

Ihsan Dogramaci was professor of paediatrics and a reformer of medical care and education in Turkey. He was born in the Ottoman town of Erbil, now in Iraq, the eldest child of Ali Dogramaci, who owned vast tracts of land, and Ismet née Kirdar. Ihsan finished Turkish primary school in Erbil. His father also hired an expatriate Scotsman to teach him English. He then spent one year in Baghdad, before enroling in the preparatory school of the American University of Beirut. While there, in addition to English, he began learning German and a smattering of the many languages of his schoolmates. His capacity for languages quite different from his native Turkish allowed him to surprise foreign visitors years later by addressing them in their own tongue, be it in Arabic, Aramaic, French, Hebrew, Italian, Kurdish or Persian.

His father wanted him to study law, but Ihsan preferred medicine. He studied for three years in Baghdad, before transferring to the University of Istanbul. Newly graduated, while visiting his uncle, the governor of Manisa, Ihsan met Albert Eckstein and his wife Erna, both paediatricians who had arrived there while on a tour of Turkey, collecting data on child health and mortality for the Ministry of Health. Eckstein invited Ihsan to study child health with him at Numune Hospital in Ankara and certified him in that specialty in 1940.

Ihsan returned to Baghdad, where his father was now a senator in the Iraqi parliament, and worked in a government hospital until 1944. There he married Ayser Suleyman, whose father Hikmet had served briefly as prime minister of Iraq. They decided to go to the USA for further medical studies and then settle in Turkey.

In 1947, after Ihsan had spent several years as a fellow in paediatrics, first at Harvard University, at Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, and then at Washington University in St Louis, the young couple arrived in Ankara. Here Ihsan accepted Eckstein’s proposal to join him in the department of paediatrics at the university. Advancing through the academic ranks to become professor in 1955, he had ample opportunity to observe the poor state of child health even in the capital city and decided to do something about it. In 1955, Dogramaci established the Institute of Child Health in an impoverished area of Ankara and a children’s hospital, both attached to the University of Ankara. By 1961, the institute included Turkey’s first university-level schools of nursing, nutrition and dietetics, physical therapy and rehabilitation, and medical technology. In 1963, he established a second faculty of medicine within the University of Ankara, and a school of dentistry. The schools were chartered as Hacettepe University in 1967. Dogramaci later played a principal role in establishing universities and medical faculties in Turkey, where he introduced modern medical education, hospital administration and health care as he had observed in the United States, and brought colleagues from that country to help him.

Ihsan Dogramaci considered education vital to health. In 1980, the Turkish government invited him to advise on a new higher education law. His recommendations included establishing a Council of Higher Education, of which he was president until 1992. In 1980, only 6.3% of the relevant age group entered higher education. By 2008, enrolment in tertiary education was 38.2%, despite an increase of 50% in that age group.

In 1982, the Turkish constitution was amended to allow private not-for-profit universities, and in 1984 he established the first, Bilkent University. At his death, there were 51 of these ‘foundation universities’. With Bilkent, he also ventured into primary and secondary education. The university includes a music preparatory school and a school leading to the international baccalaureate. Aiming to upgrade education in the less privileged eastern part of Turkey, Dogramaci planned schools there. The first, in Erzurum, accepted students in 2007, 95% on a full scholarship. The next Dogramaci school, the Bilkent International College Erbil, opened in his birthplace in September 2010, also with generous scholarships.

Dogramaci was first the president and then the executive director of the International Pediatric Association. He served as chair of the executive board of UNICEF and was head of the Turkish delegation to the World Health Assembly. He was the longest surviving signatory of the World Health Organization (WHO) constitution. He served on the executive board of the International Children’s Centre in Paris and, at its dissolution, re-created it in Ankara to promote child health in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. He received honorary doctorates from 30 universities, including Glasgow and De Montfort, was a member of eight national academies, and was an honorary member of 23 national paediatric societies. He received the Christopherson award of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Maurice Pate award of UNICEF, and the Léon Bernard foundation award of WHO. The Council of Europe awarded him its Peace, Justice and Tolerance prize in 1998, along with Cardinal Franz König and Simon Wiesenthal.

His genuine love for human beings shone through all he did. He carefully prepared for every meeting, greeting each new visitor with details of their career and accomplishments. His courage in visiting areas of conflict (such as Bosnia and Afghanistan) on behalf of children was extraordinary. Although he lived most of his adult life in Turkey, Kofi Annan, while secretary general of the United Nations, called him ‘a model citizen of the world...’.

Ihsan Dogramaci died of cancer in Ankara. He was buried in the grounds of the mosque which he built to honour his father, near the Bilkent University campus. He was survived by his wife, his two sons and daughter, six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Phyllis Lepon Erdogan

[The Turkish Journal of Pediatrics 1 March 2010 – accessed 13 December 2010]

(Volume XII, page web)

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