Medicine Science and Empire Term Paper

  • Length: 7 pages
  • Subject: Disease
  • Type: Term Paper
  • Paper: #95431144

Excerpt from Term Paper :

medicine, science and empire, with particular reference to malaria, the plague, and tuberculosis, in Great Britain, Africa and India, in the nineteenth century. The impact these diseases had on the imperial effort, and the medical profession, will also be discussed. The paper uses the following main texts: Colonizing the Body by David Arnold; Contagious Divides by Nayah Shan; Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness by Megan Vaughan; Tools of Empire by Daniel Hedrick; Warm Climates and Western Medicine by David Arnold; and Machines as the Measure of Men by Michael Adas.

In most reviews of the technologies of nineteenth century imperialism, three technologies are pinpointed as having given the imperialists their edge in the fight for dominance: the steamship, advanced military weaponry (such as rifles), and quinine. These technologies allowed the imperialists to gain ground over their new lands, to be able to conquer the people of these new lands, and to be able to conquer their new lands, through mapping projects, and the building of, for instance, hill stations (as in India) which helped the British keep an eye on their new territory, and to ensure the suppression of plots to overthrow them.

It is interesting that Headrick labels some of the imperialists' technologies as 'tools of penetration', as the tropics (for example, Africa and India) were considered the 'white man's grave', as there were so many diseases that befell the imperialist troops: until the advent of quinine, which is used against malaria, hundreds of thousands of imperialist troops were killed by malaria: Headrick was therefore most astute in labelling quinine a 'tool of penetration'. It is said that India would not have fallen to the British had quinine not been found, as pre-quinine, the losses to malaria, in terms of numbers of men were too great for the British to sustain.

As Elizabeth Scott says in her review of Headrick's Tools of Empire, "[Headrick's book] adds a new dimension to the lengthy debate on imperialism he [Headrick] argues that technological advances changed both the motives and means for imperialism, and thereby caused imperialism. By focusing on three periods of imperialist development (penetration, conquest, and consolidation), Headrick narrows the approach by concentrating on the technology that made the most significant impact: it "made imperialism possible where it was otherwise unlikely" (

This is, as Headrick argues, and as we have seen, certainly the case for malaria, as pre-quinine, it would not have been possible for the British to enter India nor Africa, nor for the French or Portuguese to enter Africa. History would have been very different indeed had quinine not been discovered, and used by these conquering nations.

Malaria is a dangerous parasitic disease, and is common in tropical and sub-tropical areas (Siddiqui, 2002). It is caused by protozoans, called Plasmodia, and is transmitted by the bite of the female Anopheles mosquito (Siddiqui, 2002). There are four types of malaria, each of which is caused by a different species of Plasmodium, and all of which cause dangerous fevers, which can be fatal if not treated (Siddiqui, 2002). Physicians diagnose malaria by identifying Plasmodia in a sample of the patient's blood, and most cases of malaria can be cured by using two drugs, chloroquine and primaquine (Siddiqui, 2002).

Both chloroquine and primaquine are derived from quinine, which itself is derived from the bark of a South American tree, the cinchona. The bark of the cinchona is chewed by Andean Indians, to ward off malaria, and was also used by Hernan Cortes' troops upon his colonial invasion of South America: this remedy for malaria was 'discovered' by Victorian botanists (reportedly the Frenchman Pierre Joseph Pelletier) in the nineteenth century.

The derivation of the cinchona bark, quinine, was used by the French in their conquest of Algeria, which took place throughout the 1830's, and it has been said that the French colonization of Africa would have been impossible without quinine. The cinchona tree was later taken over to Asia for plantations to be developed there, so that quinine could be farmed locally, for use by the British troops stationed in India.

It has been argued, particularly by Arnold, in his book Warm Climates and Western Medicine, that tropical medicine emerged as a stand-alone discipline, following such colonial adventures in the tropics: Arnold argues that Western medicine was not much defence against such foreign germs, and that, as such, non-Western medicine, which was specifically geared towards such ends, i.e., solving problem diseases, such as malaria, began to be introduced to the Western medical cannon, and - slowly - to be incorporated into Western medical practices.

Arnold argues that this fusion of non-Western ideas in to Western medical practices arose due to the particular imperatives, as placed by 'imperial diseases', such as malaria, which needed to be cured, and cured fast, for the colonialist mission to be carried forward, but also as a response to the Wests' meeting with non-Western cultures and practices: he suggests, therefore, that tropical medicine, as a discipline arose not only in response to the crisis of malaria, but also due to the imperialists' search for medical truth and progress in the field of medicine.

This theme is also replicated in Vaughan's book Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness, which argues the same point, but rather more favourably towards African society, and against the colonial powers. Vaughan's book attempts to trace specific encounters between Western medicine, and African medicine and society. Vaughan argues, throughout her book, that in Africa, medicine itself was used as a tool with which to exert colonial power: by denying African communities Western medicine, she argues that the colonial powers could exert their force, and their will on to these societies, and thus, that medicine came to be used as a political tool of colonialism.

We have seen, therefore, the influence of one disease, malaria, on the progress of imperialism and colonisation by the British and French into Africa and India. Did other diseases cause similar problems to imperialists? Two diseases, tuberculosis, and the plague, have particular relevance, as both were also extremely problematic to colonialists in the nineteenth century. Both, also, contributed to the field of medicine, as we have seen in the case of malaria.

The plague, well-known throughout the world for its destructive force, as witnessed in Great Britain in the 1600's, is caused by a parasite of the lowly flea, aptly named Yersinia pestis. It has had devastating effects on the human population throughout history, and the overall disappearance of the disease is unlikely due to the wide range of mammalian hosts and their attendant fleas (Perry and Featherstone, 1997). In Arnold's book, Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth Century India, rather like in his book Warm Climates and Western Medicine, Arnold shows how, for example, the plague came to be treated as a tool with which the colonial power could yield power against their newly colonized masses.

He expands his argument, as presented in Warm Climates and Western Medicine further here, arguing that the body itself came to be politicized by the imperialists, such that the body, and its treatment, came to influence colonial decisions, and also to "articulate the many intrinsic contradictions" of colonial rule: Western medicine, he argues, had the power to cure all, but was only extended to white colonialists, not Indians, despite the fact that developments in Western medicine, which allowed Western medicine to be practiced in the tropics, were due to external, non-Western influences. He uses the example of the plague to make this point, as the plague was common amongst Indians, due to their living conditions, which encouraged breeding grounds for the flea hosts of Y.pestis, yet uncommon amongst white colonialists: Western medicine had a cure for the plague, but non-Western medicine did not: it was an axis of colonial power that they could choose whether to extend such knowledge to their new people.

This argument is extended in another book, Migrants, Minorities and Health: Historical and Contemporary Studies, by Marks and Worboys, which argues that such ideas and developments in medicine, from imperial times, have had huge impacts on the development of thinking about ethnicity and race. They argue, as does Vaughan in her book Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness, that a form of racism extends to today, as developed from colonialism, which does not allow a fair distribution of medical treatment across the globe. Academics argue, therefore, that our ideas regarding medicine, as developed during the colonial period in the nineteenth century, in India, and Africa, has had huge repercussions on our current thought processes, and ways of thinking about race, identity, and ethnicity.

We have spoken about malaria, and saw the impact that the cure for that (quinine) had on the imperialist pathway to victory in Africa and India, but what about the role of tuberculosis? Tuberculosis (TB), or consumption (so-called because of the huge wasting effect it has on the body), is caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium…

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