Das on Downs’s Maladies of Empire (2021)

Jim Downs. Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery and War Transformed Medicine. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2021. 272 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 9780674971721.

Reviewed by Shibani Das (University of Exeter)

Jim Downs’s Maladies of Empire studies the impact that colonialism, war, and slavery had on the field of epidemiology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its geographical focus stretches across North America, the Atlantic, West Africa, the United Kingdom, and its colonial possessions in the Indian Subcontinent. It addresses the inability of historians of science, until the 1970s, to question scientific thought and embrace what Warwick Anderson calls ‘universal knowledge’.[1]  Through this book, Downs, a professor of Civil War era studies and history, attempts to adjusts popular and academic perceptions of our medical past, as well as of our understanding of inventions, innovations, and intellectual achievements by highlighting the forgotten contributions of the colored, conscripted, enslaved, and oppressed in the production of new ideas about medicine. Downs’s overarching argument is that epidemiology ‘developed not just from studies of European urban centers but also from the international slave trade, colonialism, warfare and the population migrations that followed all of these’ (3).

Continue reading “Das on Downs’s Maladies of Empire (2021)”

Exchanging Notes: Colonialism and Medicine in India and South Africa

Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust.
Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust.

Nandini Chatterjee
History Department, University of Exeter

Review of Poonam Bala ed. Medicine and Colonialism: Historical Perspectives in India and South AfricaLondon: Pickering and Chatto, 2014. Empires in Perspective Series. 240 pp. £60 (hardback) ISBN 13: 9781848934658; £24 (e-book) 9781781440872.

medicine and colonialism bookThe recent surge of interest in imperial history has been cross-fertilised by work on a number of other themes, such as knowledge formation, law and governance and trans-national connections. This collected volume of essays very usefully brings together a number of these trends to bear upon the crucial area of colonial medicine. Self-consciously aiming to be a comparative work and taking material from India and South Africa, it takes its cue from earlier works that aimed to ‘de-centre’ the metropolis-periphery model of conceptualising empire and colonialism.[1] While re-asserting the centrality of medical knowledge and practices to colonial rule, and the importance of the bodies of the colonised as sites for the exercise of colonial power, the book aims to move beyond a model of hegemony, domination and control. Instead, as the introductory essay outlines, the book’s trans-national methodology is intended to highlight ‘policies of European adaptation and resistance to initiatives of the colonized’ and the ‘transfer of ideas and knowledge in mutual engagements.’

Continue reading “Exchanging Notes: Colonialism and Medicine in India and South Africa”