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  • Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines by Warwick Anderson
  • Ma. Mercedes G. Planta
Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines. By Warwick Anderson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Born in the midst of the brutalities of the American occupation and the anti-imperialist debate in the United States, the institution of American medicine and public health in the Philippines was primarily intended to erase the doubts that divided the American nation. Hence, it was made to serve America’s “civilizing mission.” Colonial Pathologies examines the development of public health and medicine in the Philippines and how its discourse created categories through which Americans viewed the Filipino people.

Beginning with the Philippine-American War, Anderson shows the military origins of American medicine and public health and how “the image of the conquering soldier soon became transformed into that of the crusading sanitary inspector.” (p.2.) As the military government gave way to civil administration, colonial medical officials who regarded themselves as “progressive and pragmatic representatives of modern American science” (p.7) saw the Philippines as a laboratory where scientific theories of racial progression were played out. The book is divided into eight chapters that broadly reflect the “entwined histories of tropical medicine and racial thought” (p.vii) and how these were implicated in portraying the Filipino as a pathogenic race and imitator.

Obsessed with mounting behavioral, social, and hygienic reforms, colonial doctors and scientists undertook experiments ranging from the basic (i.e. nutrition and physical fitness) (p.42.), to the comical (i.e. use of white or colored underwear) (pp.83–84), and to the almost sublime (i.e. experiments on the Filipino brain) (p.100). Their medical and scientific findings, buttressed by their academic and professional training and later substantiated through practical laboratory work in the Philippines, were not only intended to preserve American health and vitality in the islands but were also used to give strength and credibility, as well as to justify the American colonization of the Philippines.

As the burden of the “civilizing mission” was increasingly felt the Americans were forced to Filipinize the colonial bureaucracy, although this was also a pragmatic response to the lack of funds for the American personnel in the country. Trained in the United States, Filipino doctors gained recognition and status among their countrymen although most Americans remained oblivious to Filipino capabilities. Assessing the health conditions in the country after he left to eventually join the Rockefeller Foundation, former Director of Health Victor Heiser was convinced that public health under Filipino control became inefficient and attributed it to the lack of virtue of Filipino physicians, being “poor imitators” of the Americans. (p.193) Interestingly, as the work of Maryinez Lyons on colonial Belgian Congo and Uganda shows, like Filipino doctors, the Ugandans and Congolese were seen as capable of acquiring “technical knowledge” but lacked the “necessary virtues”, and thus could only be medical assistants, an ambiguous intermediary role between nurse and physician.

For students of history and colonialism, the parallels that could be drawn between the Philippines and other colonies are striking. As in the Belgian Congo, “the training of medicalassistants was both a political as well as a medical necessity.” This leads us to examine how public health rated in the priorities of the colonial government. For the Philippines as well as India and Africa, colonial governments affirmed the need to promote health in the colony but were not willing to spend for it. Hence, concern for the colony becomes largely a matter of self-representation for the colonial state.

One of Anderson’s major arguments that Americans viewed Filipinos as “imitators,” however, needs to be problematized further. I think there is more to this than mere imitation. According to Fenella Cannell’s work on idolatry, imitation in the Philippines is not merely derivativeness or passivity but “encompasses a series of ways of relating to power, through which the weaker party can share in the experiences and identity of the stronger.” While Americans saw “adaptability” as a sign of “racial progress,” they also interpreted it as ‘a readiness to capitulate and surrender oneself” — imitation -which betrays inferiority and a lack...

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