The History of the Ethiopian Medical Association

How EMA was founded

The Ethiopian Medical Association (EMA) is the oldest and the first professional association in Ethiopia.

In the 1950s, just before the EMA was founded, there were nearly 500 expatriate doctors in Ethiopia with only 5 to 7 Ethiopian doctors.

One of the expatriates, Dr. Fried Hylander, a Swede, was trying to bring doctors who worked in Menelik, Princes Tsehay (currently the Armed Forces), Empress Zewditu and other hospitals together by arranging monthly meetings to discuss and share problems among themselves. And the Ethiopian Medical Association (EMA) evolved from those small meetings of doctors.

The Ethiopian Medical Association (EMA) was founded on 20 July 1961 with a charter granted by Emperor Haile-Selasie I who was also the association’s patron1. The association’s first constitution was issued the same year and it made membership open to all health related professionals. Doctors were full members while veterinary doctors, pharmacists, optometrist s, nurses and others were associate members.

According to the first president of EMA, Dr. Fried Hylander, an informal association of doctors in Ethiopia had existed since 1949 with Prof. Mario Giaquinto as the first president. Prof. Giaquinto was the director of the Imperial Ethiopian Medical Research Institute (later called The Pastuere Institute) from 1942 to 19502. (See)

Prof. G. Rizzotti was the second president followed by Dr. Johan F. Otto from West Germany. Dr. Otto and Dr. Paulos Quanaa are credited for finalizing the EMA constitution with the help of Nerayo Isayas, the attorney general at the Imperial Ministry of Justice.

Dr. Otto who was also on the editorial board of EMJ was the person instrumental in affiliating EMA with WMA.

Publication of EMJ was superbly managed by Dr. Oscar Barry, OBE, FRCSE, with timely and appropriate editorials despite his engaging work as director and chief surgeon of Princes Tsehay Memorial Hospital. Dr. Flora S. Barry, a paediatrician and wife of Dr. Oscar Barry, was the secretary of EMA in the formative years of the association.

Dr. Flora S. Barry recorded monthly schedules of the EMA meetings at various hospitals in Addis Ababa, with comments of the outcomes of these meetings, performance of branch associations in Jimma, Harrar as well as in Asmara, and number of EMA members and fellows of other professions. She also recorded new recruits. She tape-recorded the lectures and addresses of outstanding medical personalities to EMA.

Dr. Oscar Barry, editor of EMJ, Prof. Edgar Mannheimer, member of EMJ board and head of Ethio-Swedish Paediatric Clinic, as well as Dr. Alexander Dimitrov (Yugoslav national and medical director of Menelik II Hospital), Dr. Demissie Habte, Dr. Taye Mekuria, all EMJ board members as well as EMA members played key role to establish a medical school in Ethiopia in 1961-62.

The Rockefeller Commission was part of the team to study feasibility and offer plans for the medical school and faculty in the Haile-Selassie I University.

Dedj Kassa Woldemariam, president of the Haile-Selassie I University was the key player in all this, inviting the Rockefeller Commission as well as incorporating outstanding persons from Sweden (Prof. Vahlquist, professor of paediatrics and dean of Faculty of Sciences University of St. Andrew, Scotland)

Dedj Kassa (also called Lij Kassa) as president of the Haile-Selassie I University gave EMA its first lodging inside the Sidst Kilo campus. The Medical Library was also established at the Sidst Kilo campus. The EMJ soon enriched the library by housing the 120 exchange journals EMA was receiving from abroad.

Lij Kassa was also instrumental in obtaining audience with the emperor for EMA to be granted a 10,000sqm of land in the Bole area. The land was nationalised by the socialist government and later EMA was given the present lot in front of AU.

The task that faced EMA in its formative years was deciding what kind of doctors the country needed. Members of the association deliberated on the issue during the first two or three conferences. And when a medical school was opened, they served in the teaching faculty. Ethiopians had to go abroad for medical education. So, EMA started offering a continuing medical education.

In 1963, the association started publishing the Ethiopian Medical Journal.


The Derg years

When the socialist government took over in 1974 EMA’s constitution was abolished, and its budget taken away. The association lost its autonomy and came under the control of the workers’ party. However, publication of the Ethiopian Medical Journal and the annual conferences went on uninterrupted.

In the mid 1980’s (’85-86) the Ethiopian government in power formed the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia (WPE) and decided that all organized activity including professional associations should work under the new party. These included professional associations like the EMA which were literally turned overnight from voluntary associations of professionals to party led organizations to which all professionals had an obligation to join.

The EMA was thus dissolved and doctors were organized in one branch association under the umbrella organization, the Federation of Ethiopian Health Professional Associations. The organizational structure was such that there were ‘basic associations/committees’ at the regional (administrative regions, as regions were then called) level and then the bigger association at the national level. Each doctor had the obligation to join the association and had to pay 1% of his/her salary. The contribution was directly deductible from the salary. Members of the army were barred from joining the association on the grounds that soldiers could not be members of such associations. As a result, many medical doctors who were active members of the association and worked in army hospitals had to give up membership.

The doctors’ association was initially called Doctors’ Branch Association but after some negotiations the term branch was dropped and the association was called the Ethiopian Medical Doctors’ Association (EMDA). Dr Azeb Tamerat was the last elected member of the old EMA and was ‘forced’ to hand over to the newly formed EMDA.

The association still continued to hold the annual meetings and publish the medical journal. And, despite the fact that it had lost its autonomy, its activities improved. Annual meetings became more robust in terms of attendance; number of papers presented exceeded one hundred. Asystem of rewarding the best papers was established. And it was during that time, in 1989, that the association acquired the plot of land currently in its possession opposite the African Union.

In May 1991 when the socialist regime fell, all organisations that were associated with the workers’ party were dissolved. The same thing happened to the Federation of Ethiopian Health Professionals Association.

Concerned about the impact of this suspension of health professional associations, Dr Adanech Kidanemariam, the newly appointed Minister of Health, invited health professionals and asked them to start working towards re-establishing their independent associations. Professor Jemal Abdulkadir was among those who met Dr Adanech and very soon he gathered a few doctors in Addis Ababa to start working towards re-establishing EMA.

A few meetings were held in the Department of Internal Medicine of the Faculty of Medicine, Addis Ababa University in October 1991 that paved the way for a meeting of doctors from various hospitals in Addis Ababa in November 1991. The meeting was held in the Lecture Hall of the School of Medicine and there were about a 100 doctors at the meeting. An adhoc committee mandated to work towards the reestablishment of the EMA was elected at this meeting. The committee was called the Interim Executive Committee and the specific tasks it was given were

  1. To prepare the annual medical conference to take place in May 1992 and 
  2. To draft a new EMA constitution for ratification at the May 1992 conference.

Members of the Interim Executive committee were :

  • Prof. Jemal Abdulkadir Chairman
  • Dr. Mekonnen Bekele Secretary
  • Dr. Adane Gossa Treasurer
  • Dr. Wondu Alemayehu Member
  • Dr. Tadios Munie Member 
  • Dr. Azeb Tamerat Member
  • Dr. Yewondwossen Tadesse Program Officer 

The Interim Executive Committee formed a Constitution drafting committee the members of which were Dr Adane Gossa (Chairperson/Secretary), Dr Fikre Woldeghiorghis Dr. Belachew Tafesse and Dr Atalay Alem. The draft constitution was prepared in record time ready for discussion at the annual conference in May 1992.

The Annual conference took place in May 1992 and the new constitution was approved. A new executive committee was elected for a period of 3 years. Members of the new EMA Executive Committee were Professor Jemal Abdulkadir : President, Dr Belachew Tafesse, VP, Yewondwossen Tadesse, Secretary, Tigist Ketsela, Treasurer, Bahrie Bellete, Program Officer, Yohannes Negesse, PR officer, Ahmed Reja, member.

The new executive committee re-established EMA’s links with local stakeholders, actively participated in policy formulation (Health Policy, Drug Policy, etc), rejoined the World Medical Association (WMA) after consultations with the Confederation of African Medical Associations and Societies (CAMAS). It continued with the regular activities (CMEs, annual conferences). It continued publication of the EMJ which required renegotiation with Addis Ababa University to partially finance the publication. It affirmed ownership of the EMA’S plot of land (made partial payment to the Building Design Enterprise for the services the BDE had given to prepare the EMA House design during EMDA’S tenure). During this committee’s term 10 containers were obtained from UNICEF which were used to build part of the current EMA offices.

In May 1994 a full day meeting on the mission of the EMA was held in the course of the annual EMA conference. Many grievance were aired, lots of contentious issues were hotly debated and a reasonable understanding was of what the EMA should do was eventually reached.

In May 1995 the committee handed over power to a new Executive Committee chaired by Dr Hailu Kefenie. The new elections for the new committee were done in May 1994 according to the Association’s constitution.
The Challenges the 1992-95 committee faced were

  • Membership issues- small numbers & members who were expecting miracles without the readiness to contribute.
  • Proliferation of Specialty Societies + the GP Association which diminished enthusiasm about the EMA. 
  • Office space & EMA House – the EMA was housed in a small office on the 2nd floor of the Tikur Anbessa Hospital and an eviction order with a notice of only 3 days was once brought to the EMA. It required negotiations with the Ministry of Health to continue to use the office for some more time.
  • EMA House: there were no funds to build the EMA House and there were perpetual worries that the City Government may one day decide to take away the EMA land.



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