POLAK, Jakob Eduard


POLAK, Jakob Eduard (b. 12 November 1818 in Mořina (Groβ Morzin), Czech Republic; d. 8 October 1891 in Vienna), Austrian physician and writer who was instrumental in establishing modern medicine in Iran (FIGURE 1, FIGURE 2). From 1851 to 1860, he taught medicine at the Dār al-fonun, and from 1855 to 1860, he served as personal physician of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah (r. 1848-96). He summarized his experiences in the study Persien: Das Land und seine Bewohner (1865), which belongs to the outstanding ethnographic works about 19th-century Iran.

Life. He was born into a Jewish family in Bohemia, which was part of the Habsburg empire. He studied philosophy and medicine in Prague and Vienna where he obtained degrees in medicine (Dr. med. 1845) and surgery (Dr. chir. 1847), and was trained in obstetrics/gynecology (Magister 1849). After 1845 he worked for a year at Vienna’s General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus, that is: AKH), and was then for two years factory physician in a sugar refinery plant in Klobauk (Valasske Klobouky), Moravia. From 1848 to 1849, he was again employed at Vienna’s General Hospital (Wurzbach, p. 73; cf. Hāšemiān, p. 12).

His life took an unexpected turn when in 1851 Jān Dāʾud Khan visited Vienna to recruit, on the behest of Mirzā Taqi Khan Amir Kabir (1807-52), teachers for the new Dār al-fonun. Dāʾud Khan’s contact in the Foreign Ministry was Heinrich von Barb (Slaby, pp. 58, 69), who from 1852 until 1867 was professor of Persian at the Vienna Polytechnic Institute (K.K. Polytechnisches Institut). Polak was hired as professor of medicine and pharmacy; the initial contract for four years is dated 10 August 1851. After an arduous journey over Istanbul and Armenia he arrived with six colleagues—among them the artillery officer and geographer August Křziž (1814-86)—on 24 November 1851 in Tehran. Their arrival coincided with the downfall of Amir Kabir, and their official reception was cold, since nobody felt responsible for them (Polak, 1865, I, pp. 300-301). The men were not considered an official Austrian delegation, because at that time Austria did not maintain diplomatic relations with Persia. British and French diplomats realized the political implications of recruiting non-allied foreigners for the new military college, and treated them with enmity (Ādamiyat, pp. 356-60). But despite the changed political circumstances, the Dār al-fonun was inaugurated a month after Polak’s arrival, and the work began. Polak became one of the most successful instructors at the Dār al-Fonun. Initially he taught in French with the help of his translator Moḥammad Ḥosayn Khan Qājār (Waqāyeʿ-e ettefāqiya, no. 98, 5 Rabiʿ I 1269 [17 December 1852]), who may be identical with Adib-al-Dawla (1835-97). But soon Polak taught in Persian, and wrote even medical textbooks in Persian. Though Polak (1865, I, pp. 303, 312, 319) did not have many students—he gives their number as 14—they graduated successfully, and seven continued their medical education in Paris.

In January 1852, after the death of Fortunato Casolani (1819-52), who was from a British family in Malta and had served as the general supervisor of all military physicians, Polak was appointed to this largely ceremonial position. Three years later he succeeded Louis-André-Ernest Cloquet (1818-55) as personal physician of Nāṣer-al-Din; the official appointment in 1272/1855 was recorded as “manṣab-e ḥakimbāšigari-e ḥożur-e homāyun” (Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana, 1988, p. 1782). Polak (1865, II, pp. 37, 208) also tutored the shah: he continued the French lessons with which his predecessor had started, and taught the shah geography and history. It bespeaks Polak’s integrity that he never attempted to use this position for personal gain, nor was he ever accused of joining any political faction. In 1860, Polak (1865, I, p. 316) left Iran after nine years, in his own words, without hate or love (“sine odio et amore”). The summary of his last conversation with the shah on 25 April 1860 (Polak, 1865, I, pp. 316-18) shows concern for his professional future, as well as disenchantment with his employer, notwithstanding that he had received the Star of the Lion and the Sun, second rank.

After an extended stay in Egypt Polak returned to Vienna. He practiced medicine, and in 1862 he got married (marriage contract, personal archives of Yakoov Polak ARC 4° 1597, Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, Israel). Polak worked again at the General Hospital, and later at a sanatorium in the health resort Bad Ischl in Upper Austria. But he also taught Persian at the University of Vienna, served as advisor to the Foreign Ministry, and was involved in academic and cultural projects. In 1882, he returned briefly to Iran on a research mission during which he also met with Nāṣer-al-Din. The shah in turn met with Polak during his journeys to Europe. The Habsburg government recognized Polak’s services by appointing him “Ritter des Franz-Joseph Ordens” and by awarding him the “Medaille für Wissenschaft und Kunst,” while the Geographical Society (K.K. Geographische Gesellschaft) made him an honorary member. Polak died in 1891 of dry gangrene (Altersbrand), leaving behind his wife Therese.

The introduction of western medicine to Qajar Persia. The first curriculum of the Dār al-fonun was geared toward military training, and western medicine was included because the health care (see BEHDĀRI) of soldiers was recognized as a crucial aspect of modern warfare. On-site surgery can prevent that soldiers die of minor wounds on the battlefield, and systematic hygiene and quarantine can avert outbreaks of cholera in the barracks (Afkhami, p. 123). Polak’s principal task was the training of a new type of army physicians without antagonizing the established health care professionals. The official state gazette Waqāyeʿ-ye ettefāqiya closely monitored Polak’s work and the progress of the medical students.

In Iran, Polak (1865, I, p. 306; II, pp. 318, 320) was the first to regularly operate on unconscious patients, and he himself counts a total of 158 bladder stone operations. A detailed report in Waqāyeʿ-ye ettefāqiya (no. 99, 12 Rabiʿ I 1269 [24 December 1852]) was later summarized by Moḥammad Ḥasan Khan Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana (1843-96): “The removal of bladder stones became widespread through the teaching and care of Doctor Polak, and in one year he alone removed 23 stones, while only one patient died and the rest returned to good health” (1988, p. 1749).

Polak (1865, I, p. 313) is also known as the first physician to have performed a dissection in Iran because in 1854 he did the post-mortem autopsy of his Austrian colleague Zatti to determine the reason of his death. Dissection was considered taboo, and students were reluctant to study human anatomy (see EBN ELYĀS). Yet Polak (1865, I, p. 306) refused to perform dissection for teaching purposes on executed members of the Babi movement, since he objected to being used as a government tool of defilement and feared reprisals.

It is disputed as to whether Polak (1865, I, pp. 307-313) can be credited with the construction of the first western hospital (see BIMĀRESTĀN) in Iran. He writes in detail about his unsuccessful attempt to build a military hospital outside Tehran in 1854. But the Mariżḵāna-ye dowlati, which is mentioned in several other sources, was already established before his arrival (Ebrahimnejad, 2004, pp. 58-59; Mahdavi, p. 174).

Polak created the modern Persian medical terminology (Schlimmer, p. 4). A complete bibliography of his medical writings in Persian has yet to be compiled (for preliminary lists,  Azizi, p. 152; Hāšemiān, p. 17). Among his best-known medical works (Polak, 1865, I, p. 307) are the lithographed editions of his anatomy textbook (1854) and an introduction (1857) to surgery and ophthalmology (see ČAŠM-PEZEŠKI). Several manuscripts and imprints of the very influential 1852 cholera lectures, often cited as Bimāri-ye wabā (for the use of the term wabā, see INFLUENZA, EIr XIII/2, p. 141), are extant, but text and title vary, and the work awaits further investigation. Many texts that are today circulating under Polak’s name are in fact his students’ lecture notes. Polak was a popular lecturer with a wide audience, and one manuscript of his cholera lectures even found its way into the complete works of the Shaikhi scholar Moḥammad Karim Khan Kermāni (d. 1871/72). The creative contributions of his students should not be underestimated, as they testify to the active process of acquiring medical knowledge (Ebrahimnejad, 2004, p. 117).

At the Dār al-fonun Polak was assisted by several Iranian teachers, and traditional medicine (ṭebb-e qadim) was part of the curriculum (Ebrahimnejad, 2000, p. 176; Rustāi, I, pp. 111-12). It was of ultimate importance that Polak’s students continued his work. In 1856, Farruḵ Khan Amin-al-Dawla (d. 1917) accompanied the first three students, among them Mirzā Reżā b. Mirzā Moqim Mostawfi ʿAliābādi Māzandarāni (d. 1877), to Paris, where they obtained doctoral degrees in medicine (Polak, 1865, I, pp. 310-11). Mirzā Reżā defended in 1860 a dissertation about polyuria, and then returned to Iran to teach until his death at the Dār al-Fonun. In 1859, a second group accompanied the mission of Ḥasan ʿAli Khan Garrusi Amir Neẓām (1821-99). At the Dār al-fonun the Dutch physician Johann Louis Schlimmer (1819-81) was appointed to Polak’s position, while Joséph-Désiré Tholozan (1820-97) succeeded him as Nāser-al-Din’s personal physician.

Ethnography of Qajar Persia. Polak was in numerous ways a communicator of Iranian culture and civilization. He traveled widely in Iran, pursuing his scientific interests in geography, geology and botany. The lasting achievement of his nine-year residence is a report, which the subtitle classifies as ethnographic sketches. Polak thus distinguished his book from the bulk of European travel literature on Iran. Unfortunately, the title of the 1982 Persian translation—Safar-nāma-ye Polak—is misleading, and any researcher is advised to consult the German original, whose reprint is in press.

Polak wrote neither a travelogue nor an impartial academic description of Persia. Well-informed because of his access to various social groups and his excellent knowledge of Persian, Polak treats many topics, ranging from the characteristics of the Persian bath to the breeds of Iranian horses. The discussed issues include: food and cooking; clothing; sleep and sports; family life and sexuality; servants and slaves; education and culture; law and religion; cemeteries; Nowruz celebrations; Nāṣer-al-Din’s government and court; travel and infrastructure; public security; industry, commerce, and agriculture. Polak (1865, I, p.265) also documents expressions of the local dialect around Natanz, which the important Iranist E. G. Browne (1862-1926) would later mention in his memoir A Year amongst the Persians (p. 204). Polak (1865, II, pp. 192-348) devoted five chapters to exclusively medical topics. He describes the various health care professionals, their income, status and methods of treatment, as well as narcotics, poisons, and antidotes. He provides an encyclopedic list of common diseases, followed by a practical section on travel advice for foreigners, even including psychological problems of acculturation (Polak, 1865, II, pp. 349-60). Although he is not completely free from Orientalist misconceptions and remains strongly convinced of the overall superiority of the West, his detailed observations are extremely valuable. His medical practice allowed him to gain unique insights into Qajar society. For example, Polak (1865, I, p. 204) soberly notes the occurrence of a perineal tear in girls as resulting from marriage before puberty—nowadays this is considered child rape.

Austro-Iranian relations. After his return to Vienna Polak was soon recognized as an expert on Iran because of his various publications. Since the Persian government frequently turned to him as mediator and spokesman, the Austrian Foreign Ministry also began to recruit his help. The posthumously published phrase book plus grammar (FIGURE 3) shows his excellent grasp of the Persian language.

In 1882, Polak returned to Iran to explore with the help of Thomas Pichler (1824-1914) and Franz Wähner (1856-1932) the botany of the Alvand range (ALVAND KUH). During the short trip, he stayed in Tehran with his successor Dr. Tholozan, and the shah was glad to receive him (Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana, 2000, p. 179). Otto Stapf (b. 1857) published the results of this expedition in 1885. In the same year, Polak helped to fund a geological research mission, whose samples of minerals and fossils were later donated to Vienna’s Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum; cf. Eiselt).

Polak played a leading role in the representation of Persia at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair (Slaby, pp. 112-13). In 1870, Nāṣer-al-Din received an official invitation for Iran’s participation, which he regarded as a unique opportunity for his first tour of Europe. Polak arranged a committee to organize the Persian contributions, and Austrian plans for a diplomatic mission in Tehran were revived. Polak supervised the collection of the exhibits, and his personal contacts ensured that the Persian pavilion was realized. He also wrote the exhibition catalogue (1873). In 1891, shortly before his death, Polak (“Farben”; cf. Slaby, pp. 215-16) was involved in the large exhibition of oriental rugs in Vienna. Polak represented both the Habsburg empire and Qajar Persia on international conferences about cholera. In 1866, he was the Austrian delegate to the Third International Sanitary Conference in Istanbul, but in 1874, when the Fourth International Sanitary Conference was convened in Vienna, he was the official Iranian representative. His representation of Iran’s position was crucial, since medical views on the potential carriers of the Asiatic cholera conflicted with trade interests. Polak voted against the view that animals could transmit the disease to men (Afkhami, p. 130).

Polak maintained relations with Nāṣer-al-Din after his departure from Iran. In the diary of his first European tour, Nāṣer-al-Din (1998, p. 292) revealed his affection, coupled with a certain nostalgia. In the summer of 1889, the two men met once more in Berlin, during the shah’s third trip to Europe, when Polak served as counselor and translator to the Austrian emperor (Nāṣer-al-Din, 1999, p. 230; Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana, 2000, p. 347).

In his book about Persia, Polak provides many details about the Jewish community, but the study does not contain any personal statements about his own Jewish identity. In the contemporary Persian sources, he is unanimously identified as Jew and thus deliberately placed in the historical context of Jewish physicians in Iran. Polak was very concerned about the plight of the Iranian Jews, and contacted after his return to Vienna in the early 1860s the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which in 1898 established its first school in Tehran (Fischel, 1950, p. 128, no. 32; cf. Fischel, 2007). Jakob Eduard Polak navigated with great success between different cultures: he worked on the spread of modern medical knowledge in Iran, while the carefully balanced views of his publications contributed to a sympathetic understanding of Persian culture in western Europe.


Polak’s personal papers are in the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem, Israel. The spelling of Polak’s first and last name varies, as is documented by the literature listed below. Moreover, his year of birth is frequently given as 1820, though the reason for this error is not clear.


Wiener Abendpost: Beilage zur Wiener Zeitung, no. 231, 9 October 1891.

“Dr. Jacob [sic] Eduard Polak,” Neue Freie Presse, 9 October 1891, p. 5.

[A.] Drasche, “Dr. J. E. Polak,” Neue Freie Presse, 14 October 1891, p. 2.

“Dr. Jakob Eduard Polak,” Bohemia, 10 October 1891, p. 8.

Fr. von Hauer, “Dr. J. E. Polak,” Annalen des K.K. Naturhistorischen Hofmuseums, 6, 1891, s.v. Notizen, pp. 121-22.

“Dr. Jakob Eduard Polak,” Globus 60, no. 18, 1891, pp. 287-88.

Selected works of Polak.


Resāla dar moʿālajāt va tadābir-e amrāż-e nawba va eshāl va moṭbaqa, Tehran, 1269 [1853], lithograph.

Fi tašriḥ badan al-ensān, Tehran, 1270 [1854], lithograph; with a Persian-French glossary of medical terms.

Ketāb-e jarrāḥi wa yek resāla dar kaḥḥāli, Tehran, 1273 [1857]; lithograph.

“La médecine militaire en Perse,” Revue scientifique et administrative des médecins des armées de terre et de mer 7, 1865, pp. 649-53.

Vorschläge zur Verbesserung des öffentlichen Gesundheitszustandes Wien’s, Juridisch-Politischer Leseverein, Vienna, 1867.

“Itinerarien muselmanischer Pilger zu den wichtigsten Wallfahrtsorten, mit Bezugnahme auf Verbreitung von Cholera,” Mitteilungen der K.K. Geographischen Gesellschaft 10, 1867, pp. 63-85.

M. Karim al-Kermāni, “Resāla le-Duktur Pulak al-Namsawi,” in Taštamel hāḏehi al-majmuʿa ʿalā ḵams rasāʾel, Kerman, 1395, Majmuʿat al-rasāʾel 62, pp. 1-101, notes of Polak’s Cholera lectures; this Kermani edition is grey literature.

Ethnography and geography:

“Über die Communicationsmittel, die Sicherheit des Eigenthums und der Reisenden und über Asyle in Persien,” Mittheilungen der K.K. Geographischen Gesellschaft 4, 1861, pp. 40-46.

“Prostitution in Persien,” Wiener Medicinische Wochenschrift, 1861, no 32, pp. 515-17, no. 35, pp. 627-29.

“Beitrag zu den agrarischen Verhältnissen in Persien,” Mittheilungen der K.K. Geographischen Gesellschaft 6, 1863, pp. 107-143.

Persien: Das Land und seine Bewohner – Ethnographische Schilderungen, 2 vols., Leipzig,1865; repr., 2 vols. in 1, Hildesheim, 1976, 2004; tr. as Safar-nāma-ye Pulāk: Irān wa Irāniān, by K. Jahāndāri, Tehran, 1982.

Persien, Officieller Ausstellungs-Bericht der Weltaustellung 1873: Beiträge zum zweiten Bande, Heft 14, Vienna, 1873.

“Das Postwesen in Persien,” Österreichische Monatsschrift für den Orient 1, 1875, no. 12, pp. 186-88.

Die österreichischen Lehrer in Persien: Vortrag, Vorlesungen des orientalischen Museums, Vienna, 1876.

Topographische Bemerkungen zur Karte der Umgebung und zu dem Plane von Teheran, with a map by August Křziž, Vienna, 1877; offprint from Mittheilungen der K.K. Geographischen Gesellschaft 20.

Eine Expedition nach dem Karagan- und Elvendgebiete im Jahre 1882, Viena, 1883; offprint from Mittheilungen der K.K. Geographischen Gesellschaft 26.

“Farben der persischen Teppiche,” in Katalog der Ausstellung orientalischer Teppiche im K.K. Österreichischen Handelsmuseum, Vienna, 1891, pp. 44-49.

Persian Language:

Deutsch-persisches Konversationswörterbuch, nebst einem Abriβ der Formen- und Satzlehre, ed. F. Sättler, Kunst der Polyglottie 111, Vienna and Leipzig, n.d. [1900?].

Encyclopedia entries (in historical order):

“Polack [sic], Jacob Eduard,” Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Österreichs, ed. C. von Wurzbach, 60 vols., Vienna, 1856-91, XXIII, 1872, pp. 73-75.

“Polak, Jakob Eduard,” Meyers Groβes Konversations-Lexikon, 6th ed., 24 vols., Leipzig, 1905-1913, XVI, 1909, p. 71.

E. Jelinek, “Polak, Jakob Eduard,” The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. I. Singer and C. Adler, 12 vols., New York, 1901-1906, X, p. 102.

“Polack [sic], Jakob Eduard,” Grosse Jüdische National-Biographie, ed. S. Wininger, 7 vols., Czernowitz (Chernivtsi), 1925-36, repr., Nendeln, 1979, V, pp. 55-56.

“Polak, Jacob Eduard,” Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. I. Landman, 10 vols., New York, 1939-43, VIII, p. 563.

H. Riedl, “Pollak [sic], Jakob Eduard,” Österreichisches Biographisches Lexikon 1815–1950, vol. I-, Graz, 1957-, VIII, p. 170.

“Polak, Jacob Eduard,” Concise Biographical Companion to Index Islamicus, ed. W. Behn, 3 vols., Leiden, 2004, III, p. 139.

W. J. Fischel, “Polak, Jacob Eduard,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. M. Berenbaum and F. Skolnik, 2nd ed., Detroit, 2007, XVI, p. 287.

Other sources.

M. Ḥasan Khan Eʿtemād-al-Salṭana, Tāriḵ-e montaẓam-e Nāṣeri, ed. M. I. Reżvāni, vol. III, Tehran, 1988.

Idem, Ruz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt, ed. I. Afšār, Tehran, 2000.

Ph. Goldberg, “Dr. J. E. Polak: Leibarzt des Schahs von Persien und Professor der Anatomie und Chirurgie an der Militärschule in Teheran,” Jahrbuch für Israeliten, 1856, pp. 153-60.

Nāṣer-al-Din Shah, Ruz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt dar safar-e awwal-e Farangestān, ed. F. Qāżehā, Tehran, 1998.

Idem, Ruz-nāma-ye ḵāṭerāt dar safar-e sevvom-e Farangestān, ed. M. E. Reżvāni and F. Qāżihā, Tehran, 1999.

Moḥammad Taqi Lesān-al-Molk Sepehr, Nāseḵ al-tawāriḵ, ed. Jamšid Kiānfar, 3 vols., Tehran, 1998.

Ruz-nāma-ye waqāyeʿ-e ettefāqiya, nos. 1-1471, 1267-77/1851-60; repr., 4 vols., Tehran, 1995; also available as CD-ROM.

J. L. Schlimmer, Terminologie médico-pharamaceutique et anthropologique française-persane: Avec traductions anglaise et allemande des termes français, indications des lieux de provenance des principaux produits animaux et végétaux, Tehran, 1874, lithograph; reset, with a preface by I. Afshar, Tehran, 1970.

O. Stapf, Die botanischen Ergebnisse der Polak’schen Expedition nach Persien im Jahre 1882: Plantae collectae a J. E. Polak et Th. Pichler, 2 parts in 1, Vienna, 1885; repr., Denkschriften der Akademie der Wissenschaften Wien: Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Klasse, 2. Abtheilung, 50-51.


F. Ādamiyat, Amir Kabir wa Irān, Tehran, 1969.

A. A. Afkhami, “Defending the Guarded Domain: Epidemics and the Emergence of an International Sanitary Policy in Iran,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 19, 1999, pp. 122-34.

A. Amanat, Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy 1831-1896, Berkeley, 1997.

A. Ašraf, “Safar-nāma-ye Pulāk,” Kelk, nos. 47-48, 1993, pp. 230-34.

M.-H. Azizi, “Dr. Jacob Eduard Polak (1818-1891): The Pioneer of Modern Medicine in Iran,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 8, 2005, pp. 151-52.

E. G. Browne, A Year amongst the Persians: Impressions as to Life, Character, and Thought of the People of Persia, Received during Twelve Months’ Residence in that Country in the Years 1887-1888, London, 1893; repeatedly reprinted.

H. Ebrahimnejad, “Theory and Practice in Nineteenth-Century Persian Medicine: Intellectual and Institutional Reforms,” History of Science 28, 2000, 171-78.

Idem, Medicine, Public Health and the Qājār State: Patterns of Medical Modernization in Nineteenth-Century Iran, Leiden, 2004.

M. Ekhtiar, Modern Science, Education and Reform: The Dar al-Funun, Richmond, Surrey, 1999.

C. Elgood, A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate: The Development of Persian and Arabic Medical Sciences from the Earliest Times until the Year A.D. 1932, Cambridge, 1951.

J. Eiselt, “Forschungsarbeit des Naturhistorischen Museums Wien im und für den Iran,” in Commémoration Cyrus: Actes du Congrès de Shiraz 1971, 3 vols., Acta Iranica 1.1, Teheran, 1974, I, pp. 335-47, esp. pp. 339-41 for Polak.

W. J. Fischel, “The Jews of Persia, 1795-1940,” Jewish Social Studies 12, 1950, pp. 119-60.

W. Floor, Public Health in Qajar Iran, Washington, D.C., 2004.

A. Hāšemiān, “Doktor Pulāk bonyāngodār-e pezeški-ye novin dar Irān,” Ganjina-ye asnād 12, nos. 47-48, 2002, pp. 12-17.

S. Mahdavi, “Shahs, Doctors, Diplomats and Missionaries in 19th Century Iran,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 32, 2005, pp. 169-91.

Moḥsen Rustā’i, Tāriḵ-e ṭebb wa ṭabābat dar Irān: Az ʿahd-e Qājār tā pāyān-e ʿaṣr-e Reżā Šāh, 2 vols., Tehran, 2003.

H. Slaby, Bindenschild und Sonnenlöwe: Die Geschichte der österreichisch-iranischen Beziehungen bis zur Gegenwart, Graz, 1982.

January 15, 2009

(Christoph Werner)

Originally Published: December 15, 2009

Last Updated: December 15, 2009