From Medicine to Sociology. Health and Illness in Magdalena Sokołowska’s Research Conceptions

by Włodzimierz Piątkowski (Author)
©2020 Monographs 276 Pages


This monograph is the first book in medical sociology that comprehensively describes the research conceptions of the co-founder of the European medical sociology, Professor Magdalena Sokołowska (1922–1989). The study characterizes the stages of formation of the scientific foundations of medical sociology in Europe: the evolution of approach to the phenomena of health and illness from the medical to sociological perspective, the development of feminist studies in medical sociology, the emergence of scientific identity of the subdiscipline, models of interdisciplinary studies on health, and research into complementary and alternative medicine.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I Sturm Und Drang Periode: Social Medicine, Epidemiology and the Organization of a Socialist Health Care Service
  • 1 The Ideological and Political Context of the Functioning of Polish Occupational Medicine
  • 2 Social Determinants of Health
  • 3 Functionality and Dysfunction in the Organization of Industrial Health Care Service
  • 4 Zdravookhraneniye vs. Public Health: The First Attempts at Comparative Analyses of Health Care Systems
  • 5 Industry – Work – Society: Early Attempts at a “Sociomedical Approach”
  • II “The Woman Question”: From a Biogenic to Sociological Approach
  • 1 The Perspective of Social Hygiene in the Sociomedical Description of Women’s Work
  • 2 The Work of Women: A Sociocultural Context
  • 3 The Woman in the Emancipation Process: Overcoming Inequalities and Barriers on the Path to Social Advancement
  • 4 Beginnings of Feminist Studies in Medical Sociology?
  • III The Formation of the Scientific Identity of Medical Sociology: Magdalena Sokołowska’s Contribution
  • 1 Towards the “Sociology of Medical Sociology”
  • 2 The Birth
  • 2.1 Context
  • 2.2 Protectors and Advocates: Jan Szczepański, Adam Podgórecki and Stefan Nowak
  • 3 Sociological Interpretations of the Concepts – Illness, Health and Medicine
  • 3.1 The Concept of Illness: Scope, Evolution and Interpretations
  • 3.2 Health from a Sociomedical Perspective
  • 3.3 Medicine as “Knowledge and A System of Actions”
  • 4 Theoretical Points of Reference
  • 4.1 Basic Research Orientations: “Sociology in Medicine” and “Sociology of Medicine”
  • 4.1.1 Introductory Remarks
  • 4.1.2 Sociology in Medicine
  • 4.1.3 Sociology of Medicine
  • 4.2 Westernization of Polish Medical Sociology and Its Role in Inspiring East-European Sociomedical Studies
  • IV Values of Practical Usefulness: Studies in the Sociology of Disability and Rehabilitation
  • 1 First Attempts to Conceptualize the Problem of Disability
  • 2 Proposals to Build a Comprehensive Model of Studies on Disability, Invalidity and Incapacity – Magdalena Sokołowska’s Contribution
  • V “Building Bridges”: Medical Sociology and Other Sociological Subdisciplines (Sociology of the Family, Urban Sociology)
  • 1 Medical Sociology and Sociology of the Family: Mutual Relations, Reciprocal Inspirations and Examples of Joint Research
  • 1.1 Family Issues in Magdalena Sokołowska’s Own Research
  • 1.2 Studies Combining Medical Sociology and Sociology of the Family: Collaborators and Continuators
  • 2 The City as the Object of Sociomedical Research
  • VI The Sociology of the Medical Professions: The Doctor in the Health Care System and in Society
  • 1 The Role of the Doctor in Socialist Society
  • 2 Two Styles of Health Policy and the Professional Roles of the Doctor
  • 3 Considerations on the “Social Position” of the Industrial Physician
  • VII Casual Fascinations: Sociothanatology and “Complementary and Alternative Medicine”
  • 1 Sociothanatology
  • 2 Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Name Index
  • Series index

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Motto: “Nevertheless, or just because of such continuing challenges, life is beautiful, very beautiful indeed” (Magdalena Sokołowska, My Path to Medical Sociology, 1978).

Magdalena Marianna Sokołowska was born in an intelligentsia family on 11 February 1922 in Zawiercie, Upper Silesia, as the only child of Józef Mamelok and Róża (Rose) nee Baruch (Wincławski 2007b:295; see also: Dyngosz 2004:10). According to Stanisław Kosiński, during World War II, Magdalena Sokołowska’s mother used the surname Kamińska and spent the period of German Nazi occupation in Hrubieszów (Kosiński 2010:180). As her son Stefan Sokołowski recollects, the principal role in the family was played by grandmother Róża, a prudent and unemotional woman, with her feet firmly on the ground (Dyngosz 2004:10). After she finished primary school, Magdalena Sokołowska went to the prestigious and modern Emilia Plater State High School (Gimnazjum) in Sosnowiec. This well-equipped secondary school and its students were certainly the environment Magdalena felt well in and identified with. When at school, she displayed artistic passions and interest in the humanities; she was active in the school theater club, and keenly participated in the preparation of special school celebrations; she also eagerly took part in school excursions to get to know various regions of Poland. According to her close friends, “Young Magdalena grew up in the conditions of relatively good living standards, and her childhood and school years gave her a lot of joie de vivre and optimism so characteristic of her in her later life, which took good and bad turns. However, I remember Magdalena’s recollections of great poverty she perceived before the war during her youthful summer walking tours about Poland, especially in the countryside” (Kirschner 1990:148). The future scholar was strongly influenced by school readings – the works of Żeromski, Orzeszkowa and Konopnicka, and, on the other hand, the romantic poetry of Mickiewicz, Słowacki and Norwid. Several decades later, she herself wrote: “The life and work of Dr. Tomasz Judym, the idealistic, socially minded physician (…) played a great role in my attraction to social medicine. He is a hero of the past in Stefan Żeromski′s novel “Homeless People”, but his life and work continue to excite interest as if he were alive. He is a very popular person in Poland. The third generation, already my children`s generation, is still heatedly quarreling and debating this figure. Is a happy personal life a barrier to altruistic work? Was Judym right to reject his love (…)? More than thirty years ago, in high school, I was literally ill while reading this book. It returned ←15 | 16→to me with double force during the war”. (Sokołowska 1978b:291). In June 1939 Magdalena Sokołowska obtained her high school diploma and decided to apply to Poland’s only academic school of drama – the State Institute of Theatrical Arts (P.I.S.T.) in Warsaw. She recalled: “(…) Our school awarded a national prize for the school theatre each year (…)” (Sokołowska 1978b:290). Her artistic passions prevailed, but the outbreak of World War II entirely changed her plans. She returned to arts and theater in her thoughts when she went to a nursing school during the war. In her own curriculum vitae she wrote “I read a lot, looked for contacts with theater people and got popularity as a manager of the theater in the nursing school. However against the background of what was going on in the country, the idea that the stage might be my life career seemed strangely unreal (…)”. (Sokołowska 1978b:291). The question remains open to what extent her interests in the humanities and artistic fascinations influenced the personality, sensitivity and the way of thinking of the later Professor Magdalena Sokołowska. In December 1939, she managed to reach Warsaw, taking advantage of the possible evacuation in the first two months of the war from Upper Silesia incorporated into the Reich. (Sokołowska 1978b:289). Temporarily living with her distant relatives, deprived of income and the possibility of starting university education since all higher education institution were closed down by the order of the occupation authorities, she decided to start education in a post-secondary nursing school, which at that time had the status of a vocational training institution. A practical aspect of that choice made in January 1940 was that the school-provided accommodation in a dormitory and the right to eat in the school canteen.

In June 1942, already as a certified nurse, she decided (perhaps influenced by her future husband Stefan Sokołowski) to continue her education at the so-called School for Sanitary Workers [Szkoła dla Pracowników Sanitarnych], run by Associate Professor Jan Zaorski, which was in fact the Medical School of the Underground University of Warsaw, where she received “medical doctor’s half-diploma”, having passed the necessary examinations (Szczepański 1976:1). Magdalena Sokołowska had fond recollections of the wonderful doctors she met at that time: in addition to Jan Zaorski, she also mentioned Professors Loth, Czubalski, Przełęcki, Kapuściński and Elkner. She stressed self-critically that because she did not have any special talents for exact and natural sciences, it was only owing to the help of her future husband, who had begun his medical studies before the war and worked as a medical assistant, that she was able to pass successive examinations (Sokołowska 1978b:290). She did not feel well, however, in the hospital atmosphere; she preferred working with people, providing help to the needy where they lived, a kind of “sanitary assistance”. This “school of life” ←16 | 17→under the German Nazi occupation may have impacted her later outlook on medicine, epidemiology or social hygiene, and shaped Magdalena Sokołowska’s future academic career.

The growing terror and repressions in occupied Warsaw since 1943, especially towards the Polish intelligentsia, a direct danger of detention, and probably the suggestions and pressure by her cautious mother – Róża, persuaded Magdalena Sokołowska to report for transportation to work in Germany, where she became a servant in the rich home of a German dignitary in Bavaria (Dyngosz 2004:14). As one of her friends recalled: “Transported to Germany, she took part in sabotage actions for some time, of which I learned from other people” (Kirschner 1990:148). Her work in Germany was terminated when at the end of war (probably in early 1945) Sokołowska made a risky but successful attempt to escape to nearby Austria. Recognized by a German soldier as “Non-German” (who, fortunately, kept his suspicions to himself), she reached Vienna, where she found work as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital (Sokołowska 1978b:291). The liberation of Vienna in April 1945 enabled her to enroll for the third year of medical studies at the University of Vienna. Her endeavours to “reconstruct the early documents certifying her earlier education at the Underground Warsaw University” were supported by the fact of her participation in the Austrian Resistance Movement. At the same time Sokołowska worked for the Polish Repatriation Centre, and was also a co-founder of the Association of Polish Students in Austria (Sokołowska, Curriculum Vitae:1). Probably at the same time she met her future husband in Vienna: Stefan Sokołowski, like her, was deported to Germany to do forced labor.

A new chapter in Magdalena Sokołowska’s personal and professional life opened in 1947, when she returned to Poland and was admitted as a fourth-year student to the Faculty of Medicine of the newly established Medical University (then called Medical Academy) in Gdańsk (Szczepański 1976:1). The procedure for obtaining the diploma of medical doctor of 17 March 1949 (this was the second diploma of medical doctor issued by this University) took into account the periods of study at the Underground University of Warsaw (1940–1942), at the University of Vienna (1945–1947) and at the Medical University in Gdansk (1947–1949) (a Xerox copy of Magdalena Sokołowska’s Diploma of Medical Doctor of 17 March 1949, in the author’s collection). Two years later, on 26 October 1950, Magdalena Sokołowska obtained a degree of PhD in Medicine, also from the Gdańsk Medical University, having passed appropriate examinations in hygiene, infectious diseases, history and philosophy of medicine, and on the basis of the submitted dissertation “O niektórych zagadnieniach epidemiologii płonicy w Gdańsku w latach 1946–1949 (On Some Problems of the Epidemiology of Scarlet Fever in Gdansk in the Years 1946–1949)” (a Xerox ←17 | 18→copy of the diploma of PhD in Medicine conferred by the resolution of the Medical University’s Faculty of Medicine Council of 26 October 1950 – held by the author). She recalled this period, saying: “In February 1947, I returned to Poland for good and enrolled for the fourth year of medical studies at the newly founded Medical University in Gdansk. In March 1949, I received my medical doctor diploma (…). Far earlier, I chose social medicine as the discipline I wanted to devote myself to. The Polish equivalent of this course of study at that time was departments of hygiene at medical universities. At this department, at the Medical University of Gdansk, I worked from 1947 to 1950, as deputy assistant, then as junior and senior assistant. At that time 1) I participated in the Department’s teaching activity, conducting student training at an experimental health centre near Gdansk, organized together with my colleagues, 2) I conducted research on the effect of social environment on scarlet fever prevalence (There was a severe epidemic of the disease at the seaside at that time). It was the subject of my doctoral dissertation.” (Sokołowska, Curriculum Vitae, op. cit., p. 1). Her doctoral dissertation was published in the successive issues of “Przegląd Epidemiologiczny” (No. 1–4, 1950, 1–41) (Magdalena Sokołowska, Spis Publikacji, grudzień 1973 (List of Publications – December 1973, a typescript Xerox copy held by the author). Magdalena Sokołowska placed her interests of the Gdansk period in a wide range of subjects of “social problems in medicine and health care”; she tried to understand the social causes impacting the varying intensity of scarlet fever incidence in Gdansk by conducting her own “epidemiological social survey” and analyzing medical histories. The obtained research results (conducted on a sample of 1700 persons) showed, inter alia, the importance for scarlet fever incidence of such factors as the age of the subjects and their housing conditions (number of persons per room/accommodation), and exposed the errors and negligence in the reporting of scarlet fever by the city epidemiological services (Magdalena Sokołowska, Resume of Professional Accomplishments, a typescript Xerox copy held by the author, p. 1). The stay in Gdansk also brought significant events in Magdalena Sokołowska’s personal life; her husband, neurosurgeon, Stefan Sokołowski also worked at the Medical University in Gdansk, and in 1950, their son – Stefan (a future mathematician) was born.

The call-up of her husband, Stefan Sokołowski, MD, PhD, and his assignment to the Military Clinical Hospital in Łódź compelled the couple to move to that city in January 1951 (Sokołowska, Curriculum Vitae, op. cit., p. 2). Already, in February that year, Dr Sokołowska was employed as Assistant Professor at the Department of Occupational Hygiene of the State Institution of Hygiene (later Institute of Occupational Medicine) in Łódź; from 1954 she worked as Head of ←18 | 19→the section of Industrial Health Service in this Institute. From 1951 to 1955, she was at the same time the organizer and chief physician at the experimental industrial health service centre located in the Joseph Stalin Textile Industry Plant in Łódź. The research she conducted as part of her functions resulted in Magdalena Sokołowska’s reports (as author or co-author) on the health and work of women employed in industry and the organization of industrial health service. During that time she was particularly interested in the problems of hygiene (including studies on sickness absenteeism), in social medicine, epidemiology, public health and in the organization of industrial medicine. In Łódź, like previously in Gdansk, she combined her functions with teaching; until 1954 she lectured on the subject “organization of health care” to Medical Faculty students at the Łódź Medical University (Wincławski 2007b:295). A separate activity was also her voluntary work intended to diagnose and describe the health needs of rural population in the poorest communes of the Łódź province. She co-organized, inter alia, “special summer research-social camps” in Żelechlinek and Burzenin (1953–1954). Recognizing that “A research camp is a valuable school for professional and social education of Medical University students and assistants”, she emphasized the importance of such initiatives for encouraging the local population to feel the need to use the national health care service (Sokołowska, Curriculum Vitae, op. cit., p. 3).

For Magdalena Sokołowska, the Łódź period was not only a period of intensive work (combining many professional functions, organizational and voluntary activities); it was also the time of various, also difficult, personal experiences. Attempts to combine a fast career, promotions, roles of a “successful woman”, “hero of socialist work”, a party activist appreciated by the authorities, and the duties of mother and wife certainly had their impact on Magdalena Sokołowska’s family situation. Her husband was given an order to work outside Łódź (he was sent to organize neurosurgery departments in Szczecin’s hospitals); consequently, the marriage crisis gradually became acute and ended in a split-up. (Sokołowska 1978b:293–294).

An indisputable turning point in Magdalena Sokołowska’s professional career and personal life was her trip to the United States of America (USA) in September 1958. As she herself defined it, the decision to go to the USA was based on family reasons. “My Path…” reads: “The second half of my career commenced in New York. I arrived there in 1958 (…). It was a family reason which brought me to the USA, but our Ministry of Health agreed to my extended stay, long enough to finish the Master of Public Health degree study programme at Columbia University School of Public Health.” (Sokołowska 1978b:294). Some information may suggest that the original reason for the trip was M. Sokołowska’s ←19 | 20→endeavours to adopt the daughter of her best friend, who died a tragic death in an accident. At present, the adopted daughter, a graduate of Pedagogy and Polish Studies from the Warsaw University, lives permanently in Canada (Dyngosz 2004:21). Today it is difficult to conclusively determine the principal reasons for the decision to go to the USA; it should however be pointed out that owing to the assistance and financial support by the then Ministry of Health, during the first year of her stay in the USA. Magdalena Sokołowska retained her right to receive her salary obtained in Poland.

The early period of studies at Columbia School of Public Health was the period of cultural adaptation, of overcoming the language barrier and problems with getting used to the American higher education system, previously unknown to her. Magdalena Sokołowska recollected that no allowance was made for foreigners. Despite difficulties, it was also a valuable period for her future academic career: establishing relationships (and later friendships) with many advocates of the inclusion of behavioural sciences in social medicine and public health; Magdalena Sokołowska’s tutor during her studies at Columbia University was Professor George Rosen. At that time, the University was introducing thorough-going changes in the study programmes: social sciences were included in the curricula, a department of social and behavioural science was founded, sociologists were employed as lecturers and first graduates of sociological studies began to be admitted to public health study programmes (Sokołowska, Curriculum Vitae, op. cit., p.2; and idem, 1978b:295). Another important experience of that time was, in Magdalena Sokołowska’s memories, her participation in the seminar in methodology of social science, conducted by Professor Jack Elinson (who then worked at Columbia University’s Office for Applied Social Science) and in some sociological investigations carried out by that scholar’s team (Sokołowska, Curriculum Vitae, op. cit.,p. 2; also: Sokołowska 1978b:295].

We should remember that the mid-1950s were the beginning of the development of scientific identity of medical sociology, which developed dynamically in that period in the USA. (Calnan, Freidson 2015:287–288). Apparently, Magdalena Sokołowska was fully aware that she was an eyewitness to the emergence of this new discipline. It was probably then that she developed her motivation for being the “first person” to organize medical sociology in Poland (Jack Elinson interviewed by Magdalena Dyngosz, a Xerox copy held by the author). Those first meetings with sociology (lectures and seminars in social science methodology, participation in research projects under J. Elinson’s supervision, work in the Research Unit of the Bureau for Applied Social Research as well as personal contacts with eminent Polish sociologists staying in the USA. as Ford Foundation fellowship holders – Maria Ossowska, Irena and Stefan Nowak, ←20 | 21→Andrzej Malewski and Adam Podgórecki – familiarized Magdalena Sokołowska with the previously unknown discipline that proved attractive and increasingly fascinating (Sokołowska 1978b:296). In this sense the trip to the USA and studies at Columbia University (1958–1960) can be regarded as “a turning point” in her future career.

After she received her M.A. degree from Columbia University (24 February 1960), Magdalena Sokołowska returned to Poland. Since the former employer (Institute of Occupational Medicine) did not extend her employment, she moved from Łódź to Komorów near Warsaw, where she settled at the home of her mother, Róża, who took care of her grandchildren (Mary and Stefan) while Sokołowska stayed in the USA. (Sokołowska 1978b:296). Despite the fact that she recalled the early 1960s as a period of certain stability (the children were still brought up by their grandmother, but they already went to school), this time of “forced idleness” could only be a transition period to the young, ambitious doctor. Attempts to meet the new life challenge, which was the necessity of finding a job consistent with her qualifications and interests, especially in the social determinants of diseases, proved successful (Sokołowska 1978b:296). When she learned from the sociologists she had met in New York as a Ford fellowship holder (probably from Adam Podgórecki) about the possibility of being hired by the newly established Division of Occupational Sociology at IPS PAS, Magdalena Sokołowska took this opportunity and was employed as assistant professor, first for a specified period from 1 October 1961 to 30 September 1964. Her employment contract reads that she undertook to conduct systematic research, observe ethical principles binding in the Academy and improve her qualifications (the contract of employment of September 1961, a Xerox copy held by the author).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
medical sociology history of subdiscipline evolution of studies on health and illness theory of medical sociology interdisciplinary studies
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 276 pp.

Biographical notes

Włodzimierz Piątkowski (Author)

Włodzimierz Pia˛tkowski, medical sociologist, MA at Warsaw University, M. Sokołowska’s disciple and associate, elected national coordinator of European Society for Health and Medical Sociology in 1990, authored over 200 publications, including Beyond Medicine (2012), university professor of Lublin Medical University and UMCS.


Title: From Medicine to Sociology. Health and Illness in Magdalena Sokołowska’s Research Conceptions
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278 pages