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Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India
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  • Cited by 71
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  • David Arnold, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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Book description

Interest in the science, technology and medicine of India under British rule has grown in recent years and has played an ever-increasing part in the reinterpretation of modern South Asian history. Spanning the period from the establishment of East India Company rule through to Independence, David Arnold's wide-ranging and analytical survey demonstrates the importance of examining the role of science, technology and medicine in conjunction with the development of the British engagement in India and in the formation of Indian responses to western intervention. One of the first works to analyse the colonial era as a whole from the perspective of science, the book investigates the relationship between Indian and western science, the nature of science, technology and medicine under the Company, the creation of state-scientific services, 'imperial science' and the rise of an Indian scientific community, the impact of scientific and medical research and the dilemmas of nationalist science.


‘The history of modern India has long needed a series of survey volumes to bring together the fruits of the past twenty-five years’ intensive scholarship. This The New Cambridge History of India promises to do.’

Source: The Times Literary Supplement

‘ … works of substantial scholarship, providing not merely a synthesis of existing material but also original research, insight and in some cases thoughtful new interpretations. They are all compelling reading.’

Source: The Times Higher Education Supplement

‘In almost every way (these books) mark a tremendous leap forward. (The New Cambridge History of India) is a detached, post-colonial enterprise and if the volumes which follow preserve the same quality of scholarship and writing then there is a treat in store for all students of sub-continental history. The literary fluency which makes all the volumes an excellent read for lay persons interested in recent Indian history comes, I think, from a deep and intimate knowledge of the subject.’

Source: The Guardian

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  • 1 - Introduction: science, colonialism and modernity
    pp 1-18
  • View abstract
    The social character and cultural plurality of science has a particular bearing on the history of science, technology and medicine in India. The chapter explains three main elements that broadly typified science, technology and medicine in India over this 200-year period. Firstly, there were the traditions of India's own science, technology and medicine, themselves subject to wide internal variations and different historical influences and cultural practices, and the legacies these provided for the subsequent era of British rule. Secondly, there was the nature of Western science, technology and medicine as practised in India, their social and intellectual impact, their organisational forms and dual relationship to the colonial regime in India and to metropolitan science in Europe. Finally, there was the authority of science, technology and medicine as central attributes of India's modernity, drawing upon indigenous as well as Western sources and finding contested expression in both imperial ideology and nationalist agendas.
  • 2 - Science under the company
    pp 19-56
  • View abstract
    The English East India Company was as old as modern science itself. The sciences prominent in early colonial India, such as botany, geology, to a lesser extent zoology, were still at a formative stage when the Company embarked on its career of territorial expansionism in the mid-eighteenth century. Much of the scientific endeavour of the Company period took place outside, or on the margins of, state institutions. In India, the close association between botany and medicine was strengthened by the cost-driven search for local substitutes for imported drugs and the need to know the names and properties of plant medicines used by Indian physicians. Of all the sciences of Company India, botany was surely the least 'provincial' and the most closely embroiled with metropolitan science. Along with medicine, botany was one of the principal channels through which the concept of a tropical India became established in colonial discourse.
  • 3 - Western medicine in an Indian environment
    pp 57-91
  • View abstract
    Medicine occupied a central place in Western scientific thought and activity in nineteenth-century India. The Colonial Medical Service was one of the principal scientific agencies in India during the Company period and for several decades thereafter. The Indian Medical Service owed its institutional origins neither to metropolitan models nor to indigenous precedents, but arose out of the medical and military requirements of early colonial rule. By mid-century, Western medicine had begun to shun such desperate remedies, but that did not necessarily promote a reconciliation with Indian medicine. The impact of British attitudes on indigenous medical ideas and practices can most clearly be seen in the case of smallpox. The history of malaria and its close association with medical topography were important in informing British and Indian attitudes towards environment, health and race, and in establishing the authority of medicine in representations of the self and the other. Like malaria, cholera was one of the most formidable diseases of nineteenth-century India.
  • 4 - Technologies of the steam age
    pp 92-128
  • View abstract
    Technological transfers are more likely to take the form of a 'dialogue' rather than a simple process of diffusion or imposition, and this was especially the case in India, which had a wide range of existing technologies and a physical and social environment far removed from that of Europe. The history of India's cotton textile industry has often been taken as the most critical illustration of how steam supplanted craft production. Shipbuilding was a well-established craft at numerous points along the Indian coastline long before the arrival of the Europeans and was a significant factor in the high level of Indian maritime activity in the Indian Ocean region. Communication and transport by land, rather than on water, remained the greatest challenge of the age. India's irrigation works displayed great diversity of form and function, ranging from temporary earth dams to the stone-built underground reservoirs and stepwells of Rajasthan and Gujarat and the inundation canals of northwestern India.
  • 5 - Imperial science and the Indian scientific community
    pp 129-168
  • View abstract
    The combination of two elements, such as imperial science and an emergent Indian scientific community, did much to advance science in India in the critical decades of the 1890s-1900s to a position of intellectual and political prominence but also to fuel its inner tensions and contradictions. Science played little part in the education and training of Indian Civil Service officers and, though a recreational interest in natural history often developed in the course of a career in India. The scientific developments of the period 1890-1914 cannot be explained by reference to imperial science alone. It is also necessary to take into account the advent of an Indian scientific community, which became conspicuous in the 1890s but built on earlier trends. Apart from mathematics, to which Asutosh Mukherjee and Srinivasa Ramanujan made important theoretical contributions between the 1880s and early 1920s, the sciences that most clearly heralded the rise of the Indian scientific community were chemistry, physics and plant physiology.
  • 6 - Science, state and nation
    pp 169-210
  • View abstract
    India's science remained constrained and conditioned by the continuing presence of colonial rule and troubled by uncertainties about status and identity in India's quest for nationhood and modernity. The authority that Western science had come to enjoy in India by the late nineteenth century was too great to be ignored in Indians own programmes of reform and revitalisation. The most practical, and therefore most contentious, area of engagement between Hindu and Western science lay in the field of medicine. Constitutional changes under the Government of India Act of 1919 had far-reaching effects on the organisation, funding and political complexion of late colonial science. Despite the political turmoil of the inter-war period, science in India underwent profound institutional changes. India had a high reputation for tropical medicine, but the research had mainly been done in specialist institutes, leaving departments in universities and medical colleges bereft of funds and the stimulus of research.
  • Bibliographical essay
    pp 217-226
  • View abstract
    This bibliography contains a list of reference articles and books related to the surveys of the history of science, technology and medicine in colonial India and a dearth of interpretative essays. Standard histories of science, technology and medicine written from the perspective of Europe and North America give little coverage to India. Once a largely neglected field for the history of science, the period of Company rule in India has of late produced a number of important studies that have begun substantially to qualify and recontextualise much earlier work. Discussion of the relationship between women and medicine in the colonial period has focused on the contagious diseases Acts. The reconstitution and revival of Hindu science and its relationship with Western medicine have begun to attract some significant scholarly comment. Despite their obvious importance, the science, technology and medicine of the period between the outbreak of the First World War and Indian independence have, as yet, attracted little critical scholarship.


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