Azerbaijan`s first epidemiologist Ismayil Akhundov: from banks of the River Elbe back to Motherland

Baku, December 31, AZERTAC

At the end of the 19th century, in close proximity to Juma mosque in the Azerbaijani city of Shamakhi there was a house with garden full of fruit trees and medicinal plants. The house was owned by Mashadi Abdulkhalig (those who make the pilgrimage to Mashhad, an important pilgrimage site in Iran, are known as Mashadi). Abdulkhalig, a pharmacist by profession, was treating various deceases using plants he was growing in his garden.

Abdulkhalig and his wife Sitara had seven children – four boys and three girls. The eldest was Aga and the youngest was Ismayil. When Ismayil was born his father had already died. Neither Aldulkhalig nor his wife could hardly imagine their children rising to prominence one day - their daughter Sona becoming one of the first women ophthalmologists of Azerbaijan, Rahim one of the first agronomists, Agha the first Azerbaijani electrical engineer and the youngest son Ismayil the first epidemiologist…

AZERTAC dedicates this article to Azerbaijan`s first epidemiologist Ismayil Akhundov.

Student years in Germany: from surgery to epidemiology

At a time when Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) was founded Ismayil graduated from the men’s gymnasium No 2 in Baku and was working at a provincial health department. As the new government was facing an acute shortage of qualified specialists one of its first decisions was the establishment of Azerbaijan State University, which initially had four faculties. In order to tackle a specialist shortage, in November 1919, the ADR government made a decision to send 100 students to study abroad. The name of Ismayil Akhundov was in the list of those 100 students published in ‘Azerbaycan’ newspaper`s 24 December 1919 issue. He was sent to study at the Faculty of Medicine at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. As a third year student Ismayil received a job offer to teach German language grammar to foreign students.

After the establishment of the Communist state 45 students studying abroad returned back to Azerbaijan due to a lack of funding. Those who decided to continue their studies had to do it at their own expense – some worked as night watchmen, some as sellers, others as servants and laboratory assistants. On the advice of outstanding Azerbaijani surgeon, academician Mustafa Topchubashov, Ismayil Akhundov who had a great aspiration for surgery retrained as an epidemiologist. Academician Topchubashov`s advice was well grounded because if there was a handful of surgeons in Azerbaijan at that time, there were no specialists in the sphere of communicable diseases. Having graduated with honors, Ismayil Akhundov was immediately offered employment by Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich. Later he worked under supervision of famous epidemiologist, professor Erich Martini at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Diseases in Hamburg. During these years, he was dispatched to fight epidemics on the African continent – in Congo, Algeria, Tunisia and Nigeria, where communicable diseases were raging at that time. Ismayil Akhundov defended a thesis at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Diseases to become the first Azerbaijani epidemiologist. Given his success in Africa and his great potential in parasitology, universities in Japan and Italy made job offers to Ismayil Akhundov.

Return to Azerbaijan: a new front of struggle

Despite job offers from abroad, Ismayil Akhundov accepted the invitation from Azerbaijan. He left his work at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Diseases and his apartment in Hamburg, and returned to Azerbaijan on the advice of Mustafa Topchubashov. Ismayil Akhundov was offered a job as head of the Department of Entomology at the Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology. In 1920-1930s, the epidemiological situation in Azerbaijan was as dire as at the beginning of the century. There were no qualified doctors, no experienced or skilled specialists to fight malaria, which was then dubbed “number one killer” in the country`s remote regions. Ismayil Akhundov started his work in such complex conditions. Mosquito-borne malaria was wide-spread all over the country. The mosquito population was spiralling rapidly, and even aerial spraying was ineffective because most of the insects lived in drains and waterways. Ismayil Akhundov decided to tackle the root cause of malaria's spread. He selected the most skilled of his students and medical personnel in districts of Azerbaijan to train them as qualified epidemiologists. The main principle of his fight against malaria was to eliminate the sources of the disease – dry out ditches and waterways where mosquitoes were breeding, and carry out hygiene awareness campaigns among population. One of the most effective ways of fighting the mosquito menace used by Ismayil Akhundov was the release of mosquitofish (Gambusia) into the environment. Because this fish eats mosquito larvae it became possible to eliminate the malaria sources.

The young scientist also teamed up with academician Yusif Mammadaliyev to work out a new biological method of battling malaria. That method later became wide-spread all over the world and was applied in many countries.

In accordance with the then education system, Ismayil Akhundov had to defend his doctoral thesis, which he did in Germany, in Baku. After returning to his Motherland he dedicated all his knowledge, skills and experience to fighting malaria. He held a number of important positions, including at the Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, associate professor at the Department of Pathology at Azerbaijan Medical Institute, director of Baku Tropical Station, department chair at the Institute of Doctors Training, and chief of Anti-malaria Department at the Ministry of Health. Like his elder brother professor Aga Akhundov, who was arrested and exiled to Siberia as a “foreign state agent”, Ismayil Akhundov also was at risk of persecution. But the Soviet state did not want to lose such a skilled, highly-qualified specialist.

During the Great Patriotic War he was appointed as Chief Epidemiologist of the South Caucasus front. In 942, he was recalled from the front and instructed to establish a department of epidemiology at Azerbaijan Medical Institute. Professor Akhundov managed to cope with this assignment, heading the department until his death.

Half-realized dreams

By carrying out new researches and using his vast experience, Ismayil Akhundov wanted to eradicate the sources of communicable diseases throughout the country. He was publishing new books, scholarly articles and monographs, addressing research conferences, and preparing highly-qualified local specialists in epidemiology. “Malaria and culicidae in Azerbaijan” book, which is one of his most notable works, is nowadays used by specialists in this area.

By a strange twist of fate, the eldest and youngest sons of this family did not live long. Aga died in exile in Krasnoyarsk. Tragically, Ismayil Akhundov was killed in a fire that happened at the Institute of Tropical Diseases in Moscow in 1955 where the 55-year-old first epidemiologist of Azerbaijan arrived to address an international research conference.

Tribute to grandfather

Many years later grandson of Ismayil Akhundov, Kamal Juvarlinski, collected documents and created an archive in order to honor his prominent grandfather. In 2012, Kamal spent a month in the city of Hamburg, Germany, where he studied archive materials and documents. He visited the institute where his grandfather worked, and was walking around the Bernhard Nocht Street every morning. He held meetings with veteran employees of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine who paid tribute to Azerbaijan`s first epidemiologist. They said the Assembly Hall of the institute was open for any event and jubilee ceremony commemorating professor Ismayil Akhundov. During a meeting with Kamal, former director of the Institute of Tropical Diseases and presently member of its supervisory board Bernhard Fleischer expressed his desire to come to Azerbaijan and revealed his plans to embark on cooperation with the country`s medical institutions.

Azerbaijan State Oil and Industry University has recently instituted Professor Aga Akhundov scholarship for two of its top performing students at the Faculty of Energy. Similarly, instituting Professor Ismayil Akhundov scholarship for epidemiology students at Azerbaijan State Medical University and starting negotiations with the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in order to set up a similar scholarship at the German institute would be appropriate.

Presently Azerbaijan State Medical University is preparing to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the birth of outstanding epidemiologist Ismayil Akhundov. The methods proposed by the prominent scientist and professor who was a pioneer of epidemiology in Azerbaijan are still relevant today in fighting malaria.

Although many years have passed…

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