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Overpassing state and cultural borders: a Polish female doctor in 18th-century Constantinople

by Joanna Partyka

Regina Salomea Pilsztyn, neé Rusiecka (b. 1718, d. after 1760); doctoress of medicine and ophthalmologist, as she used to describe herself, is the authoress of a diary characteristically entitled Proceder podró¿y i ¿ycia mego awantur (The practice of journey and my life's adventures). The colourful personality and unusual life of that woman will constitute a point of departure for a discussion concerning place and space, strangeness and otherness: the categories experienced by a woman traveller, who crossed state and cultural borders. Regina Salomea was not a paragon of a Polish female of her time - she was different. Unaccepted in Poland because of her independence, excessive enterprise, eloquence, education, but also inadequate fulfillment of the role of a mother, wife, and housewife - she found her place on earth far away from her homeland, in the world of Islam. The categories of strangeness and otherness are not subject to the same evaluation criteria; in Turkey she was primarily a stranger, which paradoxically made her traits of personality and character, which prevented her from being acknowledged in her own country, accepted by the culturally different community. Seeking her place in the world, the 18th-century Polish woman went very far, literally and metaphorically: she captured for herself a part of space belonging to men, performing the function of the court physician of sultan Mustapha III and his harem, but also successfully treating wealthy Constantinopolitans and running a pharmacy. She boldly entered that space and tamed it, creating her "quiet centre" she could not experience in her country, where she was different. Regina Salomea’s diary, unpublished until the 20th century, is an interesting itinerary abounding in rich, cultural observations and comments, being an evidence of her extraordinary talents as an observer and ethnographer.

AsK, September 2012

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