Skip to main content Accessibility help

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



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.



Hide All

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

2 Amrith, Sunil, Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930–65 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Anderson, Warwick and Pols, Hans, ‘Scientific Patriotism: Medical Science and National Self-Fashioning in Southeast Asia’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 1, 54 (2012): 93113; Farley, John, To Cast Out Disease: A History of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation (1913–1951) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Johnson, Jennifer, The Battle for Algeria: Sovereignty, Health Care, and Humanitarianism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Jessica Pearson-Patel, ‘From the Civilizing Mission to International Development: France, the United Nations, and the Politics of Family Health in Postwar Africa, 1940–1960’, Ph.D. thesis, New York University, 2013; Rosenberg, Clifford, ‘The International Politics of Vaccine Testing in Interwar Algiers’, American Historical Review, 117, 3 (2012), 671–97; Weindling, Paul, ed., International Health Organisations and Movements, 1918–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). For an overview of the relationship between science, medicine and the colonial state in India, see Anderson, Warwick, ‘Postcolonial Histories of Medicine’, in Warner, John Harley and Huisman, Frank, eds., Locating Medical History:The Stories and Their Meanings (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 285307; Chakrabarti, Pratik, ‘“Signs of the Times”: Medicine and Nationhood in British India’, Osiris, 24 (2009), 188211.

3 Headrick, Daniel R., The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981).

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): 205–19.

6 Ibid. 205.

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

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), 169203; 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), 653–79; 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), 103–17; 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), 160–80.

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) 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).

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), 4.

36 Heaton, Black Skin, White Coats, 21.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

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



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.