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  • Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India
  • Poonam Bala
David Arnold. Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. xii + 354 pp. Ill. $45.00 (cloth); $18.00 (paperbound).

David Arnold’s book is a welcome addition to the expanding corpus of literature on the interaction between colonial imperatives and medical knowledge in a colonial setting. Yet despite a good attempt to define the term “colonizing the body,” the author does not provide an entirely satisfactory framework for the analysis of the body.

Although the book’s introduction, which discusses medical practice in the early days of British rule in India, is based on a detailed analysis of colonial policies, many of the author’s arguments do not take important facts into account. For instance, the statement that the practice of Ayurveda (Indian medicine) did not include dissection (p. 5) is contradicted by the fact that dissection and examination of the human body were essential components of Indian medical practice. Such procedures were performed only by the “ambasthas” (offspring born in violation of mating rules between high and low castes), because the religious orthodoxy of the time was intolerant of medical diagnosis based on physical examination of the body. 1

Although the triumph of Anglicists over Orientalists in 1835 ended the colonial patronage of Indian medicine, interest in indigenous medicine was revived in 1837 with the opening of indigenous classes at the Calcutta Medical College, and with the conversion of classes into formal schools in the 1880s. The discussion of the monopoly of Western medicine runs through subsequent chapters, but one wishes for more analysis of how Western medicine entrenched itself in Indian society. There is a tendency to explain this encroachment in terms [End Page 135] of the “supremacy” of Western medicine over its Indian counterpart, and the use of Western medicine as a “tool” to strengthen the colonial position—without elaboration as to how this was accomplished.

The use of indigenous drugs as a means of “learning” from Indian medicine is dealt with only cursorily. This phase of medical practice in India is significant, especially in the light of continued colonial interest in the traditional forms of medicine. For more than three decades, continuing well after World War I, Indian physicians were employed in dispensaries and local hospitals as conveyers of useful medical knowledge, and attempts to enrich the Western pharmacopeia by incorporating significant drugs continued unabated. An allusion to the Native Medical Institution, the first medical school in colonial India representing the initial coexistence of Indian and Western forms of medicine, would have augmented the author’s arguments concerning the status of Western medical knowledge in India.

Chapter 2 provides a useful discussion of the establishment of “colonial enclaves” where Western medical policies could be implemented to justify the monopoly of occidental medicine. The author also gives a detailed account of public health facilities and the Indian Medical Services as offshoots of colonial policies. Yet his sweeping statement that “appropriation, subordination, and denigration were the processes by which Western medicine marked its conquest over indigenous medicine” (p. 59) is not supported by the evidence. First, Western medicine never achieved its desired monopoly, because it was forced to compete with a number of different medical professions in India’s pluralistic society. Second, Western medicine was enriched by the appropriation of and accommodation to indigenous forms of medical practice; at the same time, it distanced itself from these other forms, becoming an “oligopoly.” 2 In any case, to construe the history of medicine in colonial India as a history of subjugation seems a less than heuristic construction.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 provide good accounts of the treatment of smallpox, cholera, and plague as examples of successful colonial rule in India—although the extent of this success cannot be ascertained. Finally, chapter 6 provides an informative account of the various aspects of Western hegemony in India, some of which would have fit better in earlier chapters. This final chapter does, however, offer a useful discussion of the role of women physicians in the growth of Western power in colonial India.

Poonam Bala...

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pp. 135-136
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