Pediatrician Ernest Majdalani

written by Dr. Negib Geahchan


Ernest Majdalani was born on April 10, 1920, in Buenos Aires, to a family of temporary immigrants to Argentina who returned early to Beirut. His father, Gabriel Majdalani, belongs to an inveterate Beiruti Romaïan Orthodox family, among whose members are Mr. Nassim Majdalani, Lebanese member of the Parliament and minister, and Dr. Atef Majdalani, a member of the Lebanese Parliament. As for his mother, Idvik Khalil El-Amm, she also belonged to a Beiruti Romaïan family.

Ernest married Nadia Nicolas Kattan, a nurse whose family belongs to the Romaïan Catholic community in Beirut. They had begotten four children: Gabriel, Nicole, Colette and Pierre.

Ernest Majdalani studied at Saint Joseph’s Jesuit School, and obtained a French State Baccalaureate in 1939. He then pursued medical studies at Saint Joseph University and obtained a French state Doctorate in 1945. He was a brilliant scholar and succeeded in the Internship Admission Examination at Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, and began his specialization in pediatrics to obtain in 1947 a degree in pediatrics from the University of Paris. He was a resident at Saint-Vincent-de-Paul Hospital, until the year 1952 when he succeeded in the Aggregation competition (professorial degree in Pediatrics). During that period, he built a close friendly relation with his French instructor professor Marcel Lelong.

He returned to Lebanon in 1952. He immediately became an instructor of pediatrics at Saint Joseph University, and remained in charge of this department until 1961, when he was appointed professor and chairman of pediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine in the same university.

Since pediatrics was not an independent department at Hôtel-Dieu University Hospital at that time, Ernest Majdalani established a small pediatric department at St. Thérèse Hospital in Hadeth. Among his assistants was Dr. Pierre Daccache, who later became a public figure and a famous member of the Lebanese Parliament. Majdalani remained in that hospital working and training medical students until 1966. In this latter year, he moved to St. George Romaïan Orthodox Hospital in Beirut, in which he established the Department of Pediatrics that he headed until his retirement in 1985. During his retirement, Ernest Majdalani continued to develop his personal musical hobby, and excelled in piano playing, composing several unique and wonderful pieces of music.

His relationship to Francophonia

Like most of the Romaïans of Beirut, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Ernest Majdalani had a well-established Francophone culture, rooted in him through his studies in the Jesuit School and at Saint Joseph University. In fact, the Faculty of Medicine of the Jesuit University was founded on November 30, 1883, as an academic institution continuously competing with the Faculty of Medicine of the “Syrian Evangelical College,” which was founded by the American Presbyterian missionaries in 1866. The Jesuits were present in Lebanon and the Levant, as Latin Catholic missionaries, since 1625, and they played a key role in establishing the dissident Romaïan Catholic church in 1724 and in converting many Romaïan families and villages to Catholicism. As for the American Presbyterians, they came to Lebanon in the year 1823, and began establishing Protestant missionary schools in the cities and villages, especially in the places inhabited by the Orthodox Romaïans, hoping to convert them.

Ernest Majdalani’s stay in Paris between 1946 and 1952 had a lasting impact on his personality and principles, and helped him to establish a permanent relationship with many eminent French physicians. He became a member of the French Society of Pediatrics, a member of the International Association of Francophone Pediatricians, and a member of the Standing Committee for the Organization of International Francophone Pediatric Congresses.

His relationship with St. Joseph University was equally strong, due to his academic past, his success in the professorship of pediatrics in France, and his enrollment in this university upon his return to Lebanon. He remained a full professor at this university until his retirement in 1987 to become, thereafter, an emeritus professor of pediatrics. As sign of high consideration for his qualities, this university did not accredit any department of pediatrics except Dr. Majdalani’s department at Saint George Hospital until his retirement in 1987.

Ernest Majdalani and St. George Romaïan Orthodox Hospital

In the year 1965, the administration of St. George Hospital, which was establishing new premises with the help of the Russian Church, contacted Dr. Ernest Majdalani proposing to institute a pediatric department in the new buildings. At that time, Mgr Elias (Salibi) was the metropolitan of the Romaïan Orthodox Eparchy of Beirut.

Dr. Majdalani conveyed the proposal to the Dean of Faculty of Medicine, the Jesuit Father Jean Madet, who immediately agreed to the proposal and accepted that this new service be an accredited university department at Saint Joseph University. Consequently, Ernest Majdalani supervised the construction and equipment of this department that was inaugurated in 1966. To enhance the department’s equipment, Father Madet and the French Embassy in Beirut mediated with the French government and added equipment to the department worth 80,000 Lebanese pounds. During the civil war, Mr. Georges Asseily mediated with the Swedish organization “Save Children” and obtained a 500,000 Lebanese pounds assistance for the department.

The department included the following sections:

• Division of General Pediatrics: 40 beds

• Division of Neonatology and Premature Children: 15 beds

• Boxes for isolated children (infectious diseases): 11 beds

• Division of resuscitation and intensive care: 9 beds

in addition to the Section of Obstetrics and Nursery.

Professor Ernest Majdalani remained the head of this department until he reached the retirement age of sixty-five (i.e. 1985), and continued to practice Pediatrics and to diligently care for patients for several years after that. Among his most prominent assistants in the department were Dr. Jean Vassoyan and Dr. Fouad Attieh.

 Ernest Majdalani’s pediatric merits in Lebanon

Professor Ernest Majdalani is credited, along with Professor Henry Nachman at the American University of Beirut, with separating pediatric medicine from adult medicine. Thanks to them, and for the first time, general practitioners and adult medicine physicians no longer took care of children and treated their illnesses. This development was critical because the principles of caring for children are different from those for adults, and children’s diseases are often different from those of adults. One of the most important medical achievements of Dr. Majdalani was the advances he realized in the diagnosis and treatment of young children’s dehydration, a previously unknown condition.

The achievements of Ernest Majdalani included the development of intensive care and neonatal medicine, encouraging his students to specialize in multiple branches of pediatrics. His department at St. George Hospital finally became a Lebanese, a Middle Eastern, and a Francophone referral center of modern pediatrics.

Professor Majdalani was an eminent reference in pediatrics, and his clinic was crowded with sick children from all regions of Lebanon.

He is credited, until the year 1984, with 28 medical publications.

Professor Ernest Majdalani was twice elected President of the Lebanese Pediatric Society.

Ernest Majdalani, founder of Pediatric Education in Lebanon

When Dr. Majdalani established the Department of Pediatrics at St. George Hospital, he was also a professor of pediatrics at the St Joseph University, chairman of this specialty, and accredited by the French state. He was in charge of the training of young Lebanese pediatricians. With time, he succeeded in establishing the following academic programs:

  • A 3-year Lebanese specialization program in pediatrics, leading to a pediatrics degree from Saint Joseph University
  • A 4-year program of specialization in pediatrics recognized by the universities of Paris, Lyon and Grenoble, leading to the French CES certificate
  • A specialization program recognized by the Council of Arab Medical Specialties, which allows the physician to apply for the Arab Board exam in Pediatrics

The documents we consulted indicate that the number of pediatricians who specialized under the chairmanship of Professor Majdalani and in his department exceeds one hundred and twenty. Many of them became heads of pediatric departments in several Lebanese hospitals.

The establishment and development of the Department of Pediatrics at the Saint George Hospital necessitated the establishment of a Department of Pediatric Surgery headed by Professor Sami Kyriakos.

Honoring Ernest Majdalani

The French state was, in 1965, the first to honor Professor Majdalani by awarding him the Academic Palm Medal of the rank of Knight. Again, on June 8, 1988, he was awarded the French National Order of Merit with the rank of Commander.

The Lebanese state honored him during the reign of President Elias Hraoui and awarded him the Lebanese Cedar Medal of the rank of Commander. First Lady Mona Hraoui delivered him this medal in the presence of the Minister of Health, Mr. Marwan Hamadé.

The Antiochian Romaian Orthodox Church honored him by awarding him, in the year 1987, the Order of Saints Peter and Paul.

St. George Hospital, the Lebanese Order of Physicians and the Pediatrics Society awarded him medals of appreciation.

Upon his academic retirement in 1987, Saint Joseph University named him Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics for life. He continued to practice medicine, on a personal level, until 1995, and he reposed in 2013.

Professor Ernest Majdalani was the first deceased person to be registered by the Romaïan Cultural Society in its Golden Registry of Deceased Endowed Romaïan Personalities on May 29, 2016. A ceremony was organized in his honor in Al-Walid Ben Talal Hall in the Lebanese Order of Physicians premises in Beirut, under the auspices of the Governor of Beirut, H.E. Judge Ziad Chebib.

The ceremony included, after the Anthem of the Romaïan Cultural Society, the following speakers:

  1. Dr. Jacques Mokhbat, welcoming the audience
  2. Dr. Negib Geahchan, introducing the Golden Registry of the Endowed Persons,
  3. Dr. Hilda Chakar, describing the Medical Educator Ernest Majdalani,
  4. Dr. Pierre Majdalani, recognizing the merits of the father and head of the family,
  5. Dr. Rami Ghobril, remembering the musical performances of Ernest Majdalani, as a musician,
  6. Dr. Bernard Gerbaka, giving homage to Ernest Majdalani as a leader in Lebanese Pediatrics
  7. Dr. Antoine Boustany, describing the great legacy of the endowed Lebanese doctor Ernest Majdalani,
  8. MP Dr. Atef Majdalani, answering the question: “What did we learn from great men like Ernest Majdalani?”
  9. Governor Ziad Chebib, honoring the faithful citizen of Beirut.

In conclusion, we retain that:

  • Ernest Majdalani, a Romaïan endowed man from Beirut, comes in the long historical lineage of Romaïan medical creativity since the fourth century, date of the founding of Constantinople. Creativity in medicine was a feature of the Romaïan civilization throughout history.
  • Ernest Majdalani was a person who highlighted the role played by the Romaïans of Beirut in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Beirut flourished and the Romaïans were one of its influential communities. Their role was closely linked to the francophonia, because they were in close contact with the missionary Francophone schools and the French state.
  • Ernest Majdalani played a major role in the development of St. George Hospital in Beirut, which was the only Romaïan Orthodox hospital in Lebanon, and which established a prominent standing between the Anglophone and Francophone academic communities without losing its uniqueness and its Romaïan identity.

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