- Histories of Health in Southeast Asia: Perspectives on the Long Twentieth Century ed. by Tim Harper, Sunil S. Amrith
For historians of health and medicine, Southeast Asia is a fascinating area to explore. It has been ravaged by cholera, malaria, the plague, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, and several other diseases; today, it is associated with the avian flu and SARS. During the eras of imperial exploration and colonial settlement, Europeans were plagued by fear about the threats that disease posed to their health, not without reason, as white settlements were often decimated by disease. Disease does not recognize borders and imperial divides; the health challenges that Southeast Asian countries have faced have been, and continue to be, the same. Yet the response to these health challenges has varied considerably, depending on the state of medical knowledge at the time, population density, population movement, the nature of colonial administration, and the organization of medical services. Southeast Asia was colonized by the British, the French, the Dutch, and the Americans; each had a different approach to organizing health care. When these colonies became independent, the variety of approaches only increased. The essays in this edited volume build on a relatively new approach to the history of medicine in Southeast Asia by transcending developments in specific nation-states and taking the region as a whole into account. Several recent collections have addressed the history of health and medicine in Southeast Asia (see Lewis and MacPherson 2007; Bu, Stapleton, and Yip 2012; Monnais and Cook 2012; Peckham and Pomfret 2013); this volume is a welcome addition in this growing area of scholarship.
Several chapters in the volume, in particular those dealing with specific diseases or health conditions, successfully address the history of health and medicine in Southeast Asia as a whole. Peter Boomgaard sketches demographic transitions in Southeast Asia during the twentieth century: after 1945, the region underwent a rapid fall in mortality caused by improved sanitation, improved health facilities, and increased control over infectious disease. Kirsty Walker analyzes the devastating impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic, the region’s “worst demographic disaster of the twentieth century” (61). [End Page 207] She explores the different reactions within the region to this devastating disease, focusing on the ways indigenous populations, European health experts, and colonial bureaucracies attempted to deal with it. According to Walker, the influenza pandemic exposed deep-seated beliefs about health and illness and exacerbated social and religious tensions.
Southeast Asia played an important role in the development of ideas and practices in international health when physicians from the area met and discussed common challenges. Eric Tagliacozzo analyzes how concerns about cholera, which swept the region repeatedly, with disastrous consequences, during the nineteenth century, led to the organization of several international sanitary conferences, the establishment of a region-wide regime of quarantine regulations and quarantine stations, and the exchange of information between states. Concerns were particularly focused on the thousands of pilgrims who made the hajj by boat every year and fell victim to the disease or transmitted it back home. Sunil Amrith explores how, in Southeast Asia, an international discourse on health and disease originated during the first three decades of the twentieth century. At the turn of the twentieth century, several medical breakthroughs in tropical medicine opened new avenues for the management of disease, primarily through prevention. Through the activities of the Rockefeller Foundation and the League of Nations Health Organization, health professionals from the region started to meet with one another more frequently to exchange information. As a consequence, Southeast Asia increasingly became a region of knowledge and medical intervention. In particular, approaches to rural health, the main topic of the 1937 Inter-governmental Conference of Far-Eastern countries on Rural Hygiene held in Bandung in the Dutch East Indies, accelerated this process.
Two essays explore the many different connections between politics and medicine. Rachel Leow examines the political activity of physicians in Southeast Asia, focusing on Malaysia. Leow notes that Western medicine has often been...