History India South Asia · History of Medicine · Medicine & Doctors · Public health

Plague and the History of the Medical Profession in India

This article was published in the Harvard Library Bulletin in July 2021. I studied the Minutes of Evidence of the Indian Plague Commission published in the late 1890s, and used those volumes to comment on some aspects of biomedical practice and doctors in India. The full article can be found here.

Below is an excerpt:

The interviews of Indian doctors also show how intimately many practitioners were aware of the cultures of the communities they practiced in, and how that helped them understand better the epidemiology of and public reactions to the plague. For example, doctors from each major urban center affected by plague had their own theories about how the plague might have reached the city. Kailas Chandra Bose from Calcutta traced the initial cases to parts of the city where “Banniahs from Bombay come and settle.” B. J. Damania from Cutch State also traced the plague in his district to Bombay, specifically mentioning a village with “well-to-do people,” especially the Khoja community of western India, who “visit Bombay often and come back.” Bhalchandra Krishna from Bombay traced the plague in his city to China, reasoning that in the early weeks it was confined only to the port area where Chinese goods coming from Hong Kong—China was already undergoing a plague epidemic—had arrived and were being stored. These goods included Chinese firecrackers, which were “generally brought to Bombay in the early part of July, or the beginning of August,” to be used in the celebration of important Hindu and Muslim festivals in the city during August and November.

The testimonies of Indian doctors also help shed more nuanced light on the reactions of the Indian public to the plague, which, in official British colonial circles, was frequently misrepresented and portrayed as uniformly oppositional to presumably enlightened and scientific government-introduced measures. For example, the Commissioners asked M. N. Banerjea of Calcutta whether people had “much objection to their clothing being disinfected.” Banerjea explained that people did not object to the disinfection as such, “but they do not like to have their things destroyed; if they object, it is because they think their things would be destroyed.”

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