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New Directions in the History of Medicine in European, Colonial and Transimperial Contexts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2016

Brown University Department of History, 79 Brown Street, Box N, Providence, Rhode Island, 02912;


In the late 1970s scholars of Europe and its colonies began probing the relationship between medicine and empire. In the decades since, following the cue of Steven Feierman, John Janzen, Megan Vaughan and Randall Packard, the literature has demonstrated that colonial medicine constructed an African ‘other’ and greatly contributed to harmful practices that did not improve the overall health and welfare of the local populations European administrations claimed to be civilising. Through the 1990s, scholarship concentrated primarily on local agency and socio-economic and political factors that furthered our understanding of how medicine and health care operated in a colonial context. These foundational studies have enabled the most recent wave of research in the history of medicine to turn its attention to questions of public health, especially as it relates to the politics of development, nationalism, and decolonisation. Historians, including Sunil Amrith and Clifford Rosenberg, have emphasised the significant role medicine has played in projecting state power in European colonies and have shown how international organisations became prominent agents in shaping national and global health policies. However, their important work has left unanswered questions about the intellectual networks that formed the elite scientific and medical minds of the day and the legacies of health policies under colonial rule.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Feierman, Steven, Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990)Google Scholar; Janzen, John, The Quest for Therapy in Lower Zaire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978)Google Scholar; Feierman, and Janzen, , eds., The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)Google Scholar; Packard, Randall, White Plague, Black Labor: The Political Economy of Health and Diseases in Africa (Berkeley: University of California, 1989)Google Scholar; Vaughan, Megan, Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

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4 For example, sources in French and British archives for the 1960s, 1970s and, in some cases, the 1980s, international organisations’ records’, including but not limited to the United Nations, the International Committee for the Red Cross, the World Health Organization and the Rockefeller Archive Center, and finally, local and national archives of the former colonies have made considerable material available to scholars.

5 Marks, Shula, ‘What is Colonial about Colonial Medicine?’, Social History of Medicine, 10, 2 (1996): 205–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Ibid. 205.

7 Anderson, Warwick, ‘Where is the Postcolonial History of Medicine’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 72, 3 (1998), 529CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

8 Chakrabarti, Medicine and Empire, vii.

9 Ibid. ixx.

10 Ibid. 2.

11 Ibid. xv.

12 On medicine and colonialism in Algeria, see Hannah-Louise Clark, ‘Doctoring the Bled: Medical Auxiliaries and the Administration of Rural Life in Colonial Algeria, 1904–1954’, Ph.D. thesis, Princeton University, 2014; Fredj, Claire, ‘Encadrer la naissance dans l'Algérie colonial: Personnels de Santé et Assistance à la Mère et à l'Enfant “Indigènes” (XIXe–début du XXe siècle)’, Annales de Démographie Historique, 122, 2 (2012), 169203CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ibid. ‘“Et il les Envoya Prêcher le Royaume de Dieu et Guérir les Malades . . .” (Luc, IX, 2): Soigner les populations au Sahara; L'hôpital mixte de Ghardaïa (1895–1910)’, Histoire, Monde et Cultures Religieuses, 22, 2 (2012), 55–89; ibid. ‘Les Médecins de l'Armée et les Soins aux Colons en Algérie (1848–1851)’, Annales de Démographie Historique, 113, 1 (2007), 127–54; William Gallois, The Administration of Sickness: Medicine and Ethics in Nineteenth-Century Algeria (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008); ibid. ‘Local Responses to French Medical Imperialism in Late Nineteenth-Century Algeria’, Social History of Medicine, 20, 2 (2007), 315–31; Lorcin, Patricia, ‘Imperialism, Colonial Identity, and Race in Algeria, 1830–1870: The Role of the French Medical Corps’, Isis, 90, 4 (1999), 653–79Google ScholarPubMed; Marcovich, Anne, ‘French Colonial Medicine and Colonial Rule: Algeria and Indochina’, in MacLeod, Roy and Lewis, Milton, eds., Disease, Medicine, and Empire: Perspectives on Western Medicine and the Experience of European Expansion (New York: Routledge, 1988), 103–17Google Scholar; Moulin, Anne-Marie, ‘Tropical Without the Tropics: The Turning-Point of Pastorian Medicine in North Africa’, in Arnold, David, ed., Warm Climates and Western Medicine: The Emergence of Tropical Medicine, 1500–1900 (Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1996), 160–80Google Scholar.

13 Osborne, The Emergence of Tropical Medicine, 4.

14 Ibid. 10.

15 Ibid. 220–1.

16 Ibid. 3.

17 Neill, Networks in Tropical Medicine, 3. In a similar vein, Lewis’, Mary Dewhurst recent book, Divided Rule: Sovereignty and Empire in French Tunisia, 1881-1938 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013)Google Scholar examines transimperial politics in Tunisia and shows how French, British and Italian interests intersected and competed in the protectorate. These kinds of studies, which cut across European empires, yield a more nuanced view of imperialism and highlight the intense collaboration and negotiation that went on between European administrators and their colonial subject as well as among European administrators.

18 Arnold, David, The Problem of Nature: Environment, Culture and European Expansion (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996)Google Scholar.

19 Amster, Medicine and the Saints, 6.

20 Ibid. 2.

21 Ibid. 3.

22 Ibid. 8.

23 Ibid. 208.

24 Heaton, Black Skin, White Coats, 4.

26 Ibid. 4–5.

27 Ibid. 6.

29 Ibid. 62.

31 Ibid. 63.

32 Ibid. 161–2.

33 Ibid. 14.

35 Cooper, Frederick, Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 Heaton, Black Skin, White Coats, 21.