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Winter 2007 Vol. V, No. 2

Inside the Gate

Pioneering Healthcare Worldwide

The establishment of the Mamdouha El-Sayed Bobst Breast Center at the AUB Medical Center

Many extraordinary people have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of others, but only one can say that she launched the first healthcare system in Libya, started that country’s first hospital, and trained its first nurses. Throughout her career, Mamdouha Bobst has been especially concerned with health issues, particularly those related to cancer. Since receiving her BA in Arabic from AUB in 1947, she has lobbied to raise public health awareness and worked to make proper healthcare available through countless initiatives in the Middle East and North America. And for more than 30 years, Bobst has been a consistent and generous supporter of the American University of Beirut.

After graduating from AUB, Bobst studied at the University of Birmingham in England, then went to UC Berkeley where she earned a master’s degree from the School of Public Health. After she finished her studies in the mid-1950s, she started working for the World Health Organization in Libya. In just three years, she set up a national healthcare system, opened the first Libyan hospital in Tripoli, and founded the country’s first training center for nurses. Throughout her time in Libya, Bobst repeatedly asked the prime minister and the minister of health when they were going to establish a hospital. Then one day it happened: “I got a call at home and was summoned by the minister. He said, ‘Ms. El-Sayed, I had a dream that I opened the first hospital! A hospital for any disease—a hospital that is Libyan.’ He proposed that we use an abandoned building in Tripoli that was once used to treat those with mental diseases.” When she asked the minister of health about doctors for this hospital, she remembers him saying, “I leave that to you.”

Although the doctors were Italian, she wanted Libyan nurses—and she wanted them properly attired. She also wanted these nurses to cut their hair so that it wouldn’t be in the way, but this would prove to be more difficult than convincing a minister to open a hospital. “They would not cut their hair because they were afraid,” says Bobst. “I said, ‘Let’s take one girl, cut her hair, wait for one month and if somebody dies, I will not ask you to cut your hair.’ They agreed. I chose a healthy looking girl who didn’t have many family members – to improve our odds! Every night we prayed that nothing would happen to anyone in her family. No one died and they agreed to let us start cutting their hair. We got them white robes and we made little caps and put them on their heads and they started to look a little bit like nurses. They were very proud.” Bobst trained the nurses herself for a year, with the help of personnel from UNESCO and other world health organizations. After several years, one of the nurses Bobst had sent to study in Egypt returned to Libya to start a nursing school. It eventually became a hospital that is still in operation.

It was during her time in Libya that Bobst became particularly interested in women’s health. She traveled extensively before settling in the United States, where she became the first woman and youngest delegate to be appointed to the Lebanese mission to the United Nations. In New York she met her future husband, Elmer Bobst. “He was also interested in public health,” she remembers. “We were both interested in the same problems in the world”. Together, they traveled extensively, starting groundbreaking cancer societies in Turkey and in Lebanon. Her husband, who is widely credited with having revolutionized healthcare and the modern pharmaceutical industry, was an early leader of the American Cancer Society, bringing it from a small institution to the nation’s pre-eminent cancer society.

Today, Mamdouha Bobst says that women’s access to healthcare is better in Lebanon than anywhere else in the Middle East. She is also reassured by the presence of cancer societies in her hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, and in smaller villages across the country.

Mamdouha Bobst recently made a generous $1 million gift to AUB to support women’s health. The gift to the Department of Diagnostic Radiology at AUBMC established the Mamdouha El-Sayed Bobst Breast Center—an independent area that will be used exclusively for women’s breast imaging. The donation will enable AUBMC to purchase new digital mammography equipment, renovate existing facilities, and establish a fund that will provide financial assistance for women who cannot afford to pay for potentially life-saving mammography services themselves.


An honorary life trustee of the American Cancer Society, Bobst has seen how new technologies are having a profound influence on breast cancer detection and treatment. The use of digital mammography, high resolution ultrasound, and MRI have led to increased early cancer detection and increased survival rates. The new fully equipped Mamdouha El-Sayed Bobst Breast Center will make these technological innovations accessible to Lebanese women, providing them the best available means of early detection of breast cancer, one of the leading causes of death in women. The demand for state-of-the-art mammography services at AUBMC is growing rapidly: the number of patients seeking mammography examinations increased more than 50 percent between 1997 and 2004.

The Department of Diagnostic Radiology benefited enormously from Bobst’s previous donations in 1999 that made it possible for the department to purchase a computer-guided breast biopsy system and a dedicated ultrasound machine allowing for preoperative diagnosis of breast lesions. Vice President for Medical Affairs and the Raja N. Khuri Dean of the Faculty of Medicine Nadim Cortas notes that Bobst’s support has provided financial assistance that has enabled hundreds of needy women to benefit from screening and early detection of breast cancer. Bobst also supported a program for women in the Burj Al Barajneh Camp that provided comprehensive treatment for those patients who were found to have cancer. The Breast Center will be part of AUBMC’s multidisciplinary program for women’s health and a constant reminder of Mamdouha Bobst—an extraordinary woman whose career has infinitely improved, and continues to improve, the lives of many others.