‘Medicine and Empire: 1600-1960′ by Pratik Chakrabarti (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Following our initial call for review and our desire to offer both a clinical and academic perspective of ‘Medicine and Empire,’ Dr Louise Hill Curth of Winchester University offers her generous thoughts below.

9780230276352Pratik Chakrabarti’s Medicine & Empire 1600 – 1900 is an extremely interesting introduction to the relationship between health, illness and imperialism from the early modern into the modern period. Although this is a fairly short book attempting to cover a long period of time, it has definitely fulfilled his aim of filling a historiographical gap in the history of medicine. Unfortunately, I feel that squeezing ten chapters into so few pages has kept it from sufficiently addressing the need for a textbook which aims to ‘grasp large historical trajectories’ (p. vii). That said, as an early modern medical historian who lectures on this period, I will be recommending that my undergraduate students read some of the chapters as a starting point for further work.

There are a number of reasons linked to the nature and content of the chapters as to why I would be unable to use this as either a main or secondary text. One of the major points is the way in which the material is presented. Rather surprisingly given the title, the introduction breaks the period into the ‘Age of Commerce 1600 – 1800’, the ‘Age of Empire c. 1800 – 1880’, the ‘Age of New Imperialism 1880 – 1914’ and ‘the Era of New Imperialism and Decolonization 1920 – 1960’. While the title of the first chapter is ‘Age of Commerce 1600 – 1800’, there is no such clear logic behind the thematic headings of what follows.

A second problem is linked to the inherent dangers in producing textbooks is that the strongest parts will be those in which the academic specialises. This is particularly noticeable in the way in which Chakrabarti handles the pre-eighteenth century period (in which his main expertise begins). The first chapter on the ‘Age of Commerce 1600 – 1800’, for example, contains a mere fifteen and a half pages of text. While this might explain the fairly superficial nature of the material, readers would have been much better served by a longer section attempting to cover less material. As an early modern medical historian, I also take issue with only a token comment acknowledging that the growth of international exploration and trade began long before the 17th century.

Despite starting off chronologically with the Age of Commerce, the following chapters are based on various themes which do not follow a logical progress. This does not, however, take away from them all being well researched and written! I found this particularly true of Chapter 2 on ‘Plants, Medicine and Empire’, which reminds me of Chakrabarti’s Materials and medicine: Trade, conquest and therapeutics in the eighteenth century (MUP, 2010). Chapter 3 moves on to a discussion of ‘Medicine and the colonial armed forces’. While this chapter contained some very interesting material, it suffered greatly from trying to cover the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in fourteen pages. This is somewhat disconcertingly followed by two more short chapters on ‘Colonialism, climate and race’ and ‘Imperialism and the globalization of disease’. While interesting in themselves, in common with the earlier chapters, these heavily referenced sections will be most useful as starting points for further study.

This book really begins to come into its own, however, with Chapters 6 and 7 which focus on India and Africa. Unlike many aspects of European history, these are topics that are much less familiar to many medical historians. Although the former takes the reader through a very speedy overview of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries, it also provides many tantalising insights into Chakrabarti’s expertise on Colonial India. This is also true of the following chapter, which manages to provide a more in-depth view due to it focusing on only one (the nineteenth) century. Chapters 8 and 9 move back into broader discussions of increasingly modern ‘Imperialism and tropical medicine’ and ‘Bacteriology and the civilizing mission’. Disappointingly, while it would have been useful for the final chapter to draw the entire book together in some sort of conclusion, Chakrabarti has chosen to write about ‘Colonialism and traditional medicines’ instead. This is followed by a comprehensive bibliography which at twenty-seven pages is much longer than the main body of text in his chapters.

Despite the wealth of interesting material that Chakrabarti includes, it suffers greatly from being so short. Given the author’s strengths, it might have been better to produce a longer and more in-depth textbook which would provide a logical, easy to follow progression from the eighteenth into the twentieth centuries. Despite these problems, however, Chakrabarti has produced an interesting and very user-friendly introduction to the topic. I would, therefore, recommend it not only to other medical historians but to any colleague interested in the relationship between the beliefs, experiences and practices relating to health and illness and how they were influenced and affected by the history of imperialism.

Reviewed by Dr Louise Hill Curth, who is Reader of Medical History and Head of the Centre for Medical History at the University of Winchester in the UK. Her main area of expertise and extensive publications are on early modern English medical beliefs and practices for both humans and animals.

Correspondence to Dr Louise Hill Curth. 

Works cited

Chakrabarti, Pratik. 2010. Materials and medicine: Trade, conquest, and therapeutics in the eighteenth century. Manchester University Press.


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