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Amster Ellen, Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Department of Religious Studies | Jason A. Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine

photo of Ellen Amster

Ellen Amster

Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Department of Religious Studies | Jason A. Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine

Associate Members
Department of Anthropology

Institute on Globalization & the Human Condition

Department of Religious Studies


I am an interdisciplinary historical scholar of the Islamic world, France, science, gender, and medicine. I am interested in Islamic Sufi epistemologies and positivist scientific modernity in Western and Islamic thought.  The body is a central problematic in my research, as a place of healing, identity, memory and the sacred. Women’s histories, feminism, and gendered bodies are also central.

My first book, Medicine and the Saints:  Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956 is an interdisciplinary study of health, healing, and the body in Morocco, based in fifteen years of research in Arabic manuscripts, French colonial and medical archives, and field interviews with Moroccan physicians, nurses, patients, midwives, and NGOs.  After serving as a translator for an ORBIS ocular surgery mission in Morocco, I realized that scholarship can directly impact women’s health and created a determinants of health field study program for students, “Maternal and Infant Health in Morocco:  Women’s Rights and Family in Islam,” and the Morocco-Canada Network in Maternal and Infant Health (CIHR Population Health grant, 2019).  I am studying the transition to global health for traditional Moroccan midwives (qablat) and birthing mothers.

Other research projects include a study of drag and cosmopolitanism in North Africa (French-Muslim, Muslim-Jew, Arabic-French), the geographies of Islamic Sufi sainthood and a translation of a nineteenth-century Moroccan hagiographical compendium Salwat al-Anfas wa muhadathat al-akyas bi man ‘uqbira min al-‘ulama’ wa al sulaha’ bi fas (Entertainment of the souls and discourse of the most sagacious concerning the scholars and righteous men buried in the city of Fez), the French Islamologist Ernest Renan, and a history of modern public health.  I am also attempting two digital exhibits featuring Moroccan women artists for the Material and Visual Cultures of Religion Project (Yale).

I welcome students in Religious Studies and Health Sciences and invite all students and faculty to use the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities Research Portal we created in the Hannah Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences.


  • PhD from University of Pennsylvania in History
  • BA from University of Chicago


*Islamic Civilization, The Formative Period, 500-1258
*A History of Modern Public Health, 1700-present
*Political Islam to Zionism:  Middle East Intellectual History
*Maternal and Infant Health in Morocco:  Women’s Rights and Family in Islam (an interdisciplinary summer global health field course).  Visit the course website and student blog: and listen to a PBS television interview with Dr. Amster.


Dr. Amster’s research addresses the relationship of citizen bodies to the body politic, the history of biomedicine in global context, religion and science, birth and maternal health, the body as the center of political sovereignty, and the encounter of French and Islamic scientific epistemologies.
Current projects include a global history of modern public health, transvestites in French North Africa, midwifery and gynecology in the Islamic world, digital histories of medicine, the biography of French colonial woman artist Aline Reveillaud de Lens, the French sociology of Islam, Sufism, traditional pharmacology, Judeo-Islamic scientific exchange, and an interdisciplinary approach to contemporary issues in health care, the cultural experience of illness, and birth, midwifery, and infant health in North Africa.

Selected Publications


Medicine and the Saints:  Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956, (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2013).
*Honorable Mention, William H. Welch Medal in the History of Medicine, American Association for the History of Medicine, 2017.
*Honorable Mention for the Alf Andrew Heggoy Book Prize of the French Colonial Historical Society, 2014.

Journal Articles

“The Body and the Body Politic:  Medicine, Public Health, and Healing as History in the Modern Middle East and North Africa,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2015 (47:3): 563-565.

“’The Harem Revealed’ and the Islamic-French Family:  Aline de Lens and a Frenchwoman’s Orient in Lyautey’s Morocco,” French Historical Studies, Spring 2009 (32:2): 279-312.

“The Many Deaths of Dr. Emile Mauchamp: Medicine, Technology, and Popular Politics in Pre-Protectorate Morocco, 1877-1912,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 36 (2004): 409-428.

Book Chapters

“The Mad Saint as Healer:  The Islamic Majnun in al-Kattani’s Salwat al-Anfas and in French Colonial Medicine and Sociologie,” 125-140.  In Henk de Smaele, Tineke Osselaer, and Kaat Wils-Verhaegen (eds.) Sign or Symptom?  Exceptional Corporeal Phenomena in Medicine and Religion 19th and 20th century, Leuven:  University of Leuven Press, 2017.

  “The Syphilitic Arab?  A Search for Civilization in Disease Etiology, Prostitution, and French Colonial Medicine,” 320-346.  In Patricia Lorcin and Todd Shepard (eds.) French Mediterraneans, University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

  “Rumor and Revolution:  Medicine, Technology, and Popular Politics in Pre-Protectorate Morocco, 1877-1912,” 87-111. In ed. Driss Maghraoui Revisiting the Colonial Past in Morocco, London and New York:  Routledge, 2013. 


“Global IVF, Infertility, and Emergency Contraception in the Middle East and North Africa,” in Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, 14:3, November 2018: 343-347.

“’Abd al-Salam” and  “Adarraq.” In ed. Marc Gaborieau, Gudrun Krämer, John Nawas and Everett Rowson, The Encyclopedia of Islam 3, Leiden:  Brill, 2011: 16-17, 8-10.

 “Shrines of Morocco.” In ed. Larissa Taylor, Encyclopedia of Medieval Pilgrimage, Leiden:  Brill, 2009: 454-455.

 “Muhammad V of Morocco” In ed. John Esposito, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2009: 120-121. 

 “Morocco.” In ed. John Merriman and Jay Winter, Europe Since 1914—Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, New York:  Scribner, 2006: 1799-1802.

 “Saints and the Islamic City:  Looking for Sacred Space in Fes, Morocco.” The Urban History Newsletter, October 2006, Number 36: 1-3.

 “Westernization:  The Middle East.” In ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz, The New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York: Scribner, 2005: 2468-2469.

 “The Attacks Were a Bid for Power in the Arab World,” International Herald Tribune, September 18, 2001: 10.

Recent Invited Lectures

“Global Poverty and Women’s Health:  Highlighting Untold Stories,” University of Illinois at Chicago, December 3, 2018.

“Cat’s Cradle and the Clinical Trial:  The Humanity of Medicine and the Humanities in Medicine.”  Medical Library Association, Upstate NY and Ontario Chapter, November 15, 2018.

“The Body and the Body Politic in the Middle East and North Africa,” McGill University, Montreal, QC, September 24, 2018.

“Healing and History:  The Body and the Body Politic in the Middle East and North Africa.”  The Middle East Center, University of Pennsylvania, April 17, 2018.

“Why is Anyone Anti-Vaccine?  A History of Vaccination and Anti-Vaccination,” Eastern Michigan University, February 8, 2018.

“Mademoiselle le Docteur:  A History of Women Physicians and Women’s Voices in Medicine,” Ontario Medical Association, 18th Annual Women’s Health Care Seminar, May 4, 2017.

“A Doorway to the Divine:  Islamic Bodies and Sufi Saints as Connecting the Living to the Dead.”  Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere, University of Florida, April 6, 2017.