History · History of Medicine · Medicine & Doctors · Public health · Recommended movies, books etc.

The history of medicine in India: Some reading recommendations for doctors and other healthcare practitioners

Over the last two years I have fortunately had the time and resources to read some excellent scholarship on the history of medicine and public health in India. These books and articles have immensely helped me to understand the historical beginnings and trajectories of the different aspects of healthcare in our country.

For example, one of the most common themes in discussions over public health in India is the federalism involved – the fact that much of the decision-making power lies in the hands of state and other local governments and not the Central government. However, it is not commonly known that the origins of this duality lie in the politics of India’s struggle for independence during the British colonial rule. Since the late 1800s Indians were becoming more and more assertive in demanding autonomy, and British administrators had to make increasingly expansive compromises. Public health was considered by the latter as a kind of dispensable area of governance, an area which they could bring themselves to part with to placate politically aggressive Indians. The most significant arrangement came about in 1918-19 with the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms which transferred several spheres of governance to provincial governments (the equivalent of state governments of today) – which were beginning to be led by Indian as against British officers. Public health/sanitation was one of those spheres.

I am writing this post to make people aware of some important scholarly books and articles that help us understand such fascinating nuances of medicine and healthcare in India. As medical students and doctors if we do come across any writing on the history of medicine, it is generally one that’s framed in terms of ‘glorious past’ or ‘great doctors and researchers doing great things/saving humanity’ themes. We rarely are exposed to detailed and interesting analyses of people and communities from the past – their actions and intentions and motivations – and of the complex social, political and economic forces which have affected healthcare and medicine. Scholarly writing, however, remedies those deficiencies perfectly.

[This is not an exhaustive list. I am sure I will be missing many titles here. I will also keep updating this regularly.]


David Arnold’s Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India

Sanjoy Bhattacharya’s Expunging Variola: The Control and Eradication of Smallpox in India, 1947–1977

Biswamoy Pati and Mark Harrison edited The Social History of Health and Medicine in Colonial India

Waltraud Ernst’s Colonialism and Transnational Psychiatry: The Development of an Indian Mental Hospital in British India, c. 1920-1940

Dominik Wujastyk’s The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings

Projit Bihari Mukharji’s Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies, and Braided Sciences

Niels Brimnes’s Languished Hopes: Tuberculosis, the State and International Assistance in Twentieth-century India

Sanjam Ahluwalia’s Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947

Roger Jeffery’s The politics of health in India

Mridula Ramanna’s Western medicine and public health in colonial Bombay: 1845–1895

Guy Attewell’s Refiguring unani tibb: plural healing in late colonial India

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan’s Old Potions, New Bottles: Recasting Indigenous Medicine in Colonial Punjab (1850–1945)

Sunil Amrith’s Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930—65

Mohan Rao’s From Population Control to Reproductive Health: Malthusian Arithmetic

Sarah Hodges’s Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India, 1920–1940

Poonam Bala’s Medicine and Medical Policies in India Social and Historical Perspectives

Sanjoy Bhattacharya et al’s Fractured states: smallpox, public health and vaccination policy in British India, 1800–1947


Accessible articles:

Sunil Amrith’s Health in India since independence

David Arnold’s Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India

Nandini Bhattacharya’s The Logic of Location: Malaria Research in Colonial India, Darjeeling and Duars, 1900–30

Roger Jeffery’s 1977 Allopathic medicine in India: A case of deprofessionalization?

Jahnavi Phalkey’s Science, History, and Modern India

Dominik Wujastyk’s The Wellcome Ayurvedic Anatomical Man And His Sanskrit Context

Sanjiv Kakar’s Leprosy in British India, 1860–1940: Colonial politics and missionary medicine

Monica Saavedra’s Politics and Health at the WHO Regional Office for South East Asia: The Case of Portuguese India, 1949–61

Aparna Nair’s ‘They Shall See His Face’: Blindness in British India, 1850–1950

Helen Power’s The Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine: institutionalizing medical research in the periphery

David Arnold’s British India and the “Beriberi Problem”, 1798–1942

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