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Reviewed by:
  • Epidemics in Modern Asia by Robert Peckham
  • Mark Harrison
Robert Peckham. Epidemics in Modern Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xxi + 355 pp. Ill. $32.99 (978-1-107-44676-2).

Despite its centrality to the epidemiological history of humankind, scholarship on epidemics in Asia remains patchy. Moreover, by comparison with other parts of the world, there is surprisingly little in the way of synoptic vision. Robert Peckham's book goes some way to remedying this—tracing connections between some of the more prominent foci, while illuminating parts of the epidemiological landscape that have languished in obscurity. His purpose is partly to inform current debates about Asia's place in a global disease environment and partly to show the potential of epidemics as historical subjects. Few would deny the importance of either aim. On the one hand, the threat presented by epidemics has been grossly over-simplified and depoliticized. On the other, the historiography of epidemics has attracted fewer scholars of late and has suffered from a want of new approaches.

In both senses, Epidemics in Modern Asia is a welcome contribution to the literature. Also noteworthy is Peckham's bold and refreshing approach to the subject. Whereas one might have expected a history structured around particular diseases, he has organized his material around five themes: mobility, cities, environment, war, and globalization. Each is illustrated by a handful of case studies illuminating aspects of epidemic disease over the past two centuries. In each chapter we encounter a number of different diseases, not all of which (e.g., schistosomiasis and sexually transmitted diseases) would normally be considered as epidemics. As Peckham points out in the introduction, the term "epidemic" is rather slippery, but it is perhaps too freely applied in some of the chapters. [End Page 677]

The structure of this book has much to recommend it, especially as some themes warrant special consideration, on account of either their neglect or the need to revise opinions that have been too easily arrived at. Such is the case with the history of war and epidemics. Peckham's approach is commendably different from much of the literature on this subject, examining how specific forms of violence have shaped epidemics and vice versa. Also notable is the author's consideration of the environmental dimensions of epidemic disease. While there is a growing body of scholarship on this subject (for example, on the Ottoman Empire),1 it has often been sidelined in favor of a focus on the political ramifications of epidemics. By devoting a whole chapter to the environment, Peckham helps us understand the relationship of disease to the transformations wrought by modernization, whether in colonial settings or independent nations such as the People's Republic of China.

One gains many insights from considering epidemics thematically, but there are some drawbacks, too. Perhaps the most important of these is that it restricts the possibilities for comparative analysis. Readers seeking to understand differences in how nations/colonies experienced the same types of disease will be disappointed. Also, most of the examples used in the book are drawn from East and Southeast Asia, with only occasional examples from work on India, for example. West Asia is not considered at all.

The reliance on case studies to illustrate particular themes always involves difficult choices, and Peckham handles this skillfully for the most part. But occasionally there are some large gaps, such as in the chapter on the environment. This leaps from a discussion of malaria control in Japanese-controlled Taiwan to the eradication of the disease in that country in 1965. As a result, we hear little about how the Taiwanese dealt successfully with this problem in the intervening years.

Epidemics in Modern Asia does not present an overarching thesis about the significance of epidemics in modern Asian history, whether demographically or in any other sense. However, it does much to revive a flagging historiography, showing many new ways in which epidemics could be used to explore key themes in Asian history. It also successfully challenges simplistic narratives about the nature of epidemics and their control. Historians of disease and public health will therefore learn much from reading this thought-provoking book, regardless of their...


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pp. 677-678
Launched on MUSE
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