HST3132/3133: Tools of Empire? Medicine, Science and Colonialism, 1800-1950

40 credits (semesters 1 and 2)

Module Leader: Dr Saurabh Mishra 


Two modules from HST200-HST2999

Module Summary

Western science and biomedicine have, for long, been seen as agents of progress. Research in the last two decades has, however, revealed their close ties with the history of colonial conquest and rule. As a result, scientific inventions such as guns and steamboats are now seen as 'tools of empire'. Also, medical discoveries such as quinine are seen as serving a similar purpose, as they allowed European colonizers to survive the 'disease-ridden jungles' of Africa and Asia.

But how and why did this image of Asia and Africa as the 'white man's grave' come to be formed? What lay behind the idea of the 'Tropics'? How, and in what ways, were the 'Tropics' supposed to affect the European body or constitution? What role did the idea of race play in forming these perceptions? These are some of the questions this module will address.

Another theme that we will discuss in detail is the question of the formation of western science and medicine. We will examine the assumption that modern science and medicine were created solely in the West, and subsequently retailed across the 'uncivilized world'. We will also ask whether various modern scientific disciplines (such as Botany, Geology, Cartography etc) would have been possible without colonialism. The module will also examine ’indigenous’ role in the formation of modern science and medicine. Finally, this module will also study various aspects of modern medicine, as practiced in the colonies, in great detail. We will, for instance, look at the developing notions of madness and psychiatry, the idea of ‘public health’, the impact of epidemics, and the development of new branches of medicine such as bacteriology/laboratory medicine.

In discussing these and other questions, the main focus of the module will be on colonial India, but we will also use examples and readings from other colonial situations, where relevant.


The following sub-themes will be discussed as part of the module:

Science and Medicine as Tools of Empire

The diffusion of 'western Science'

Theories for the Spread of Science/Medicine: Of Centres, Peripheries, and the 'Moving Metropolis'

Indigenous Agency and the Formation of Modern Science

Colonialism and 'Traditional Medicine' (such as Ayurveda)

Public health and Epidemics in the Colonies

Anthropometry, Phrenology (the science of studying human skulls) and racialist science

Eugenics and the idea of race in the nineteenth century

Medicine/Science, and Modernity in the Colonies

Indigenous Responses to Western Medicine

Madness, Psychiatry, and Empire

The Idea of the Tropics

Tropical Medicine as a New Discipline

Hill- Stations of the Raj (such as Simla, or Darjeeling)

Science and Medicine in Post-colonial Times

Module Aims

This module will familiarise students with a new sub-discipline of history -- the history of medicine and science, which has become very influential in the last few decades. It will also equip students with analytical skills so that they are able to dissect and analyse seemingly uncontroversial issues such as the idea of scientific progress. Students will also be able to look at the history of a number of formerly colonised regions, such as the Americas, Africa, and Asia, though India will be the major focus of our discussions.

Teaching and Assessment

Seminar discussion of primary and secondary sources will help students to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the historiography of this period and of the principal varieties of primary source material available to historians. Through discussion of these primary and secondary materials students will develop their understanding of medicine, science and technology in the former colonies.

Further guidance is provided in the module course booklet, available through MOLE.

Information on assessment can be found at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/history/current_students/undergraduate/assessment/level3

Selected Reading

  • To Follow.

Intended Learning Outcomes
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