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  • Diagnosing Empire: Women, Medical Knowledge, and Colonial Mobility by Narin Hassan
  • Maneesha Lal
Narin Hassan. Diagnosing Empire: Women, Medical Knowledge, and Colonial Mobility. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011. viii + 133 pp. $89.95 (978-1-4094-2611-0).

Narin Hassan’s Diagnosing Empire: Women, Medical Knowledge, and Colonial Mobility explores the intersections of women’s travel, Western medicine, and literary production in the context of the British Empire and its aftermath, focusing primarily on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Hassan argues that while Britain’s imperial relationships enabled certain British women to experience the novelty of travel to the Middle East and India, Western medicine offered them a means to interact with “native” women and men and thereby lay claim to both medical authority and literary authorship. Based on travel writing and memoirs by British women, including some physicians, the book also examines works by a few South Asian and Middle Eastern women who studied medicine. Hassan emphasizes just [End Page 353] how productive discourses of health and healing could be for women seeking a public voice. Whether professionally trained physicians or amateur “doctresses” proffering tinctures and pills, these women expanded traditional notions of domestic female care to embrace public roles as healers of strangers. By focusing on the textual and literary analysis of selected women’s writings and documenting their participation in the projects of Western medicine and empire, Narin Hassan offers a unique vantage point for understanding the broader history of imperial and colonial medicine.

Diagnosing Empire comprises an introduction, four chapters, and a short epilogue. After a helpful introduction, Hassan begins chapter 1 with a discussion of the eighteenth-century travel writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu before turning to the writings of mid-nineteenth-century women travelers to the Middle East. While in her Turkish Embassy Letters Lady Montagu valued what she perceived as a Turkish tradition of smallpox inoculation, later women commentators criticized healing practices among native women in Syria and Egypt. Hassan compares British women’s increasingly pathological representations of the harem with medical advice guides that presented British women’s own health as precarious due to the perils of tropical travel. Chapter 2 explores how certain British women travelers in the mid-Victorian era fashioned themselves as amateur “doctresses,” relying on medical kits and guides to attract natives to Western models of hygiene. Hassan describes how authors such as Lucie Duff Gordon and Isabel Burton distinguished their travelogues by focusing on matters of health, depicting places such as Egypt and Syria as lacking proper medical care and in need of medical and social reform. Hassan stresses that narratives of amateur doctoring by women travelers preceded the expansion of women’s professional medicine in Britain and the colonies and indeed helped promote its acceptance. Chapters 3 and 4 shift the focus to India, a major target of Britain’s reform attention in the era of high empire. In chapter 3, Hassan examines accounts by professionally trained British “lady doctors” who ventured to India. She suggests that women such as Edith Pechey and Mary Scharlieb presented themselves as “powerful agents” who could navigate private female spaces and reconfigure native health practices even as they “embod[ied] the grandeur as well as projected benevolence of Britain’s imperial progress” (p. 62). Chapter 4 considers works written by and about Indian women, particularly representations of the “New Woman” of late Victorian India. Hassan spotlights Krupabai Satthianadhan, an Indian Christian woman who studied medicine and wrote one of the first Indian novels in English, Saguna, based on her own experiences. Hassan maintains that health reform became an important theme in literary imaginings of modern Indian womanhood. The epilogue discusses the writings of Haimabati Sen, Nawal El Saadawi, and Qanta Ahmed to argue that in portrayals of certain Asian and Middle Eastern women doctors, the trope of the female physician as emblem of feminist progress, particularly as contrasted to secluded women patients, persists well into the twentieth and even twenty-first centuries.

While elements of this argument will not be new to scholars familiar with the colonial medical enterprise, one of Hassan’s key contributions is to emphasize how the British or Westernized Indian woman doctor became an important...


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pp. 353-355
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