Medicine in Colonial India

Awadhesh Kumar Jha
Awadhesh Kumar Jha

Awadhesh Kumar Jha is a Research Scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at awadhesh4jnu[at]

Book Review

Madhuri Sharma, Indigenous and Western Medicine in Colonial India/Foundation Books, New Delhi/2012.

In India, western medicine was an important tool which was used as a political weapon by the colonial powers to establish their rule. The privileged class of India helped them in this endeavour. This privileged and advantaged class started taking interest into the western medicine from very beginning, and thus in the post colonial India orientation towards western medicine for the new born nation was promoted and perpetuated by advantaged and privileged class. The present book is a well researched work on history of medicine in colonial India. Ms. Madhuri’s book has added a new chapter into the existing knowledge about colonial India. The author has delved into finding the prevailing truth regarding the interrelation existing between indigenous and western medicine. Sharma’s authored book fills the gap of an area, specific to colonial history of medicine in India

medicineThe book focuses on the social history of medicine reflecting the multiplicity and complexity of social interaction and encounter between indigenous and western medicines. Exploring a variety of engagements and interventions in the patronage and professionalization of modern medical science and the institutional interventions, it also highlights the contradictions of harmony coexisting in the public sphere. Focusing on the borders and the boundaries marked by the colonial government in the medical profession, this study analyses how Indian allopathic and indigenous medicine practitioners struggled with these demarcations.

The book begins with a couplet following Indians attitude or response towards western medicine, maladies- preventive and curative- of medicine both in its western and indigenous forms. Sharma gave a brief account of existing literature on related area e.g. works dealing with unani medical practices, politics of ayurvedic education etc. (page 6). Layout of the book has been done in the introductory chapter along with laying the main argument.

The chapters following introduction tries to assess the developments in health and healing practices and the patterns of patronage and plurality of medical system existing in India which influenced these developments (Page 7). The author delves into the question pertaining to the role of local authorities in promoting sanitary plans in ‘Holy city of Banaras’ maintaining its cleanliness with the help of official sponsors, municipalisation, role of government employees, and role of public platforms like ‘Kashi Nagar Pracharni Sabha’ (Page 31).

Chapter two and three assess western medicine as a field of social entrepreneurship. It also focuses on the debates on medical issues as they came to constitute a regular topic in English and vernacular newspaper and pamphlets of the time. The question of how the educated sections engage with modern notions of disease and their cures also involved encounters in various contexts with new medical sciences and medical technologies such as the thermometer, stethoscope, injection, x-rays and contraceptive devices. It further shows how educated people of the society were carving out a niche for themselves through the interventions in various levels. Scientific knowledge about the reproduction was invoked in public. Debates about the norms of marriage, procreation and pleasure took place. It argues that this intervention generated a rich corpus of medical tracts in Hindi meant to familiarize western medicine among the masse’ or those within the broad circumference of reading (Page 43).  Author has used popular literature like Hindi novel Godan to explain the existing class divides and access to the western medicine. The author has also emphasised upon the role of native people in giving boost to western medicine over the indigenous ones. Changing perception about the western medicine has been accounted, at the same time critiquing the western medical practices. Use of western medical instruments like thermometer and stethoscope is explained without disturbing the existing social practices and also without disturbing the social fabric caste, class purdah system existing at that time. The author has also dealt with intricacies of debatable issue of gender, class, moreover marriages, sex; celibacy has been taken into consideration. But Sharma has not examined the composition of the educated class or for that matter the middle class.

The author in the third chapter of the book probes into crucial issues such as professionalism in medicine, which tends to get ignored in the age of consumerism. With inception of western medicine there was change in the mindset of people towards medical practices. Western medicine started getting recognition as status symbol, there was influx of competition. Advertising and marketing became the survival kit. Taking up western medical profession or becoming its client was getting associated with status symbol. Medical profession was taking the shape of any other profession based on profit motive unlike its earlier existence as social responsibility commanding respect.

Chapter four of this book turns from a social to commercial entrepreneurship in the field of indigenous and western medicine. In this chapter the author tends to focus on changing nature of the traditional market of medicine and the complex structure of medical entrepreneurship in Banaras (Page 106). Ms Sharma addresses the question such as, how the indigenous drug manufacture draws upon official odes and design of patent, trademarks and logos to prove their entrepreneurial competence. She further considers the initiatives taken by the Indian manufacturers to create a space for their products in the market, through newspaper and advertisements. It has also been showed how advertisements drew upon cultural codes to create a larger market and their role as communicating medium in disseminating knowledge about health and disease.

The chapter on entrepreneurship in medicine has been divided into two halves by authors’ prerogative. The first half deals with the complexities and multiplicity of medical entrepreneurship and the second half shows the competitive edge among the Indians and also between the Indians and the Europeans in order to capture the market. In the realm of entrepreneurship in medicine, advertisements were an advanced strategy used by Europeans drug entrepreneurs to create consumers for their products and Indians also adopted same kind of communication infrastructure and marketing strategies to fight the ongoing completion to capture the clientele market (Page 136). The impact of advertisements over the consumer has been explained by the author with help of couplet by Akbar Allahabadi to highlight the reaction of one section of the society towards the packaged health food given in the opening paragraph of introduction can be cited to mark out the above point (Page 139).

The book reveals that the medical practices during colonial India, was not a dichotomous relation. It was rather a multifaceted muddle of various strands intertwined to each other with many unearthed puzzle. The chapters are well connected but the title of the book lacks cohesiveness with the narrowed subject matter. A reader will not be able to decipher the nuances merely by glance at the title. But this will not deter the reader from picking up Ms Madhuris book. Though the book will attract selected group of readers, mainly curious readers from sociology, history, researchers and scholars pertaining to area of medical history or history of medicine in colonial India, but this does not diminish the significance of this book. It will help in gaining gradation in the area of history of medicine in colonial India.

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