restricted access Disease and Medicine in World History (review)
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Reviewed by
Sheldon Watts. Disease and Medicine in World History. New York, Routledge, 2003. 144 pp. $88.95.

Like his earlier Epidemics and History: Disease, Power, and Imperialism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997), Watts's Disease and Medicine in World History is a provocative book, which should excite discussion among its intended audience of world history undergraduates and their teachers. Drawing liberally from a wide range of medical histories, the book has three interrelated foci. The first examines medical and health theories and some practices in Egypt, the Middle East, China, India, and pre-Columbian Americas from earliest recorded times until the late Middle Ages. Watts then explores what he labels "the globalization of disease" that accompanied European expansion to Africa, India, the Americas, and East Asia. Finally, he describes the development of scientific medicine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as unique, without roots in earlier traditions. Watts disputes, as "fallacious" the widely held belief "that non-Western peoples would reject Western bio-medicine if it were made available to them in favor of 'traditional' . . . pre-scientific medicine their distant ancestors may once have used" (p. 141, emphasis in original). Rather, Watts insists that Western capitalism, which he characterizes as responsible for the initial spread of deadly infectious disease throughout the Southern world, continues through its current commitment to globalism, to ensure the continuing epidemics. The forces responsible for the spread of infectious diseases, Watts believes, have also restricted the institution of effective biomedical interventions.

Watts makes his case in ten compact chapters. Half of these examine so-called traditional medicine in ancient Egypt, Greece, the Middle East, India, China, and pre-Columbian America. The "medical systems that existed" prior to 1650, writes Watts, "can only be understood in terms of their own cultures." Placed in historical context, these ancient medical systems "cannot properly be interpreted as being merely erroneous gropings after the (mythic) universal ultimate medical truth." Rather, "each of the medical [End Page 227] systems . . . must be seen as having had its own logic and its own integrity" (p. 3). Thus, prior to the rise of scientific medicine, Watts uncovers diverse and contested approaches to health and illness, including a number of attempts to establish empirical approaches. These competing philosophical theories, like Galen's, often attached human health and illness with the requirements of the gods and the movement of the stars and planets (p. 35). The most persuasive of them drew their legitimacy from the "wisdom of ancient authority." Such approaches mandated that skills in textual interpretation would be more valued than reports of experience with afflicted individuals. Disease and illness were more often related to notions of balance and harmony than individual sign/symptom presentations. As a result, medical authorities often had no special training in medicine.

Watts's discussion of diseases, as opposed to medical theories, begins with the spread of infections that accompanied Europeans as they extended their trade and colonial enterprises to Africa, India, the Far East, and the Americas. The impetus for these expeditions, according to Watts, came from "venture capitalists, based in a handful of great European cities, who funded enterprises intended to bring huge return on investment" (p. 89). Those who executed the schemes of the venture capitalists in the Americas were "opportunists who—after escaping the moral bonds imposed by their home communities—were prepared to do anything to further their personal goals" (p. 88, emphasis in original). At times it is unclear whether Watts is indicting a Western entrepreneurial system or Europeans themselves. For instance, he characterizes Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern explorers as "sophisticated . . . businessmen and traders" who crossed and recrossed "the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea in large well-manned ships to visit focal points of progressive enterprise," in contrast with "most of Western European laymen who joined the fleets going out to the New World in and after 1492" as "men on the make," who had "failed to contract an advantageous marriage," who "had failed in a business dealing," or had "general bad luck" (p. 87).

Drawing on recent studies—such as Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity...


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