1. Historical background to the emergence of ethnomedicine in Vienna

The meeting of the Gesellschaft der Aerzte in Vienna on January 9, 1920 was doubly noteworthy for the history of medicine because, firstly, the distinguished chief of the First Department of Medicine, Karel Frederik Wenckebach, made a strong plea for the transfer of the Institute for the History of Medicine from makeshift accommodation in his department to the recently-vacated Josephinum and then, during the discussion of this issue, Hans Pollitzer proposed the establishment of an institute for geographical medicine and ethnology in Vienna to promote world-wide co-operation in this field. It was mainly the Jewish doctors practising about a century ago who showed awareness of the great importance of ethnomedicine in relation to practical medicine. Indeed, Adolf Kronfeld, the long-serving chief editor of the Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, wrote numerous articles on ethnomedicine and, to crown this output, published a two-volume study on comparative ethnomedicine entitled „Vergleichende Volksmedizin“ along with Oskar von Hovorka, the chief of the mental hospital at Klosterneuburg – Gugging, which has remained an important reference book on the subject right up to the present time.

Likewise, Erna Lesky, who rebuilt the high standing of history of medicine as specialty in Vienna after the Second World War, recognised the importance of ethnomedicine and encouraged its development as an individual subject by purchasing relevant literature in this field for the library of the institute. Together with the ethnomedical section, founded in 1988, of the Zentralbibliothek fuer Medizin in Wien, the Institute for the History of Medicine currently possesses the most comprehensive collection of literature on ethnomedicine in the whole of the German-speaking world.

The foundation of the Department of Ethnomedicine in Vienna on April 23, 1993 represents a historic milestone in the development of ethnomedicine in Central Europe. By creating the first institution devoted to this discipline amongst the German-speaking countries, Vienna University set the signals for the future and initiated important structural changes. This development signified a small step in the direction of the Anglo-Saxon and French-speaking universities, in which the subject of medical anthropology or anthropologie médicale, respectively, has held an established and highly-regarded place for decades.

2. The practical significance of ethnomedicine

Ethnomedicine is a specialist area which is not restricted to describing „exotic“ healing practices, but actually offers concrete practical help in everyday clinical medicine. Thus, ethnomedicine facilitates communication with patients from other cultural backgrounds (such as „guest workers“), or the carrying out of projects in Third World countries. Moreover, generally speaking, the medical and nursing staffs’ understanding of the inherent conceptions held by their patients with regard to illness and therapy is heightened by their observations and analyses within the scope of ethnomedicine. Thus, they are better equipped to pin-point and respond to their patients’ needs. This is of importance, since if patients lose trust in the exponents of conservative medicine, they often turn to alternative medicine and may consequently fail to receive adequate medical care.

Contrary to contentions spread by the ill-informed, which impute to ethnomedicine the aim of undermining modern medicine by paramedical ideas and practices, it is considered to be an unbiased science by its proponents. Thus, it does not presume to evaluate the quality and efficacy of any therapeutic measure, whatsoever.

3. Acceptance of ethnomedicine by students

Tuition in ethnomedicine, which has been offered at Vienna University over the past 15 years or so, has become increasingly popular with the student body. The main lecture course is attended by an audience of up to 100 students from the various faculties, whilst the seminar in ethnomedicine, held as optional specialty course for medical students, is restricted to 20 participants owing to the shortage of staff. A further selection of lectures is offered by our department in nutritional anthropology, ethnopsychology, ethnopharmacology, medical anthropology, obstetrics and gynaecology from an ethnomedical viewpoint and in methods of ethnomedical fieldwork. Special seminars are held for the benefit of advanced students. Moreover, lectures in ethnomedicine have featured regularly for many years in the syllabus of the courses on „tropical medicine“ and „holistic medicine“ at Vienna University and on „community health“ at Innsbruck University.

Ethnomedicine is figuring with increasing prominence as subject chosen for the special academic course, unique to the Philosophy Faculty of Vienna University, which permits students to design their own syllabus according to individual preference, proceeding to graduation with a specific master’s degree. This constitutes the first step towards recognition of ethnomedicine as an independent course of study. In the current academic year (1998 – 1999), 10 students are being supervised in preparation of submission of their work for doctoral dissertations and a further 20 are working under our guidance towards their master’s degree. In addition, 4 African exchange students are currently enrolled in a postgraduate course at the Department of Ethnomedicine, sponsored by the österreichischer akademischer Austauschdienst (ÖAAD) within the framework of the North-South dialogue. Provision has been made for accommodating up to 20 research students in a room which has recently been adapted for this specific purpose. Situated over the main staircase leading to the lecture theatre of the institute, the room is of historical interest as the home of the famous collection of obstetric wax models at the time the Josephinum was founded.

4. Scientific undertakings in the field of ethnomedicine

The characteristic feature of research work undertaken in the Department of Ethnomedicine is the encouragement and accomplishment of fieldwork. At least one such project, financed by the Österreichischen Fonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung (FWF), is in progress at any one time and sometimes several run concurrently (current projects: "The murals in the medical college at Labrang Monastery" 22965 G21 and
"Spirit possession: Modes and function", Hertha Firnberg-Grant T525-G17). A further focal point of interest at present is the realisation of the goal to establish a specific ethnomedical museum as soon as possible. The colleagues working on this research project are enthusiastically collecting suitable objects from all over the world towards this endeavour. Moreover, to encourage international communication with co-specialists in the field, we founded our own English-language paper entitled „Viennese Ethnomedicine Newsletter“, which was launched in 1998. It appears thrice annually and gives a report on the various activities of the Department of Ethnomedicine and the outcome of the individual undertakings.