On the home front : food, medicine, and disease in World War I Egypt

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This dissertation describes conditions on the Egyptian home front during World War I (1914-1918). I describe how government price control policies and military requisitioning led to food shortages and famine among the rural populations and urban poor, and how, in turn, epidemic diseases rapidly spread throughout the population. I also examine tensions over the spread of sexually transmitted infections and over the legality and morality of sex work, which proliferated during the war. The wartime story of the civilian population in Egypt was one of starvation, death, and suffering. The analysis begins with a history of the state medical service from 1805 through 1914. From its beginnings as a military-focused program under the Ottoman viceroy Muḥammad ᶜAlī (1805-1849), I describe its development over the course of the 19th century through the British occupation (1882-1923). A cholera epidemic in 1883 provided a litmus test against which Egyptian health infrastructure was deemed to be insufficient. Between 1905 and 1914, several initiatives were initiated to increase medical services, but many of these were suspended at the beginning of the war. I paint a picture of a civilian population affected economically by the war, unable to afford to feed themselves adequately, and often starving in plain sight. The unprecedented increase in the number of cases and deaths from infectious diseases reveals a population whose collective immunity was weakened as a result of malnutrition. The worst epidemic, the global influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, arrived in Egypt just as the war was ending and killed over one per cent of the country’s population. I argue that the combined effect of hunger and disease during the war years is a significant factor in the social history of early 20th century Egypt, and contributes to historical understandings of the social and political developments in the decades that followed.



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