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Empire and Development, 1929–62: Development and Medicine

May 7, 2012

Event report – by Y C Daniel Chan and Joanna Lunt

In July 2011 the University of York hosted a conference on ‘Empire and Development, 1929–62’. In his introduction of the ‘Development and Medicine’ panel, Sanjoy Bhattacharya (University of York) stressed the change in the focus of scholarship about colonial medical history. Twenty-five years ago the literature concentrated on heroic stories of individuals – primarily Europeans – who practised medicine in the tropics. Medical history now has many similarities with social, economic and political history: it is interdisciplinary and diverse. The papers presented reflected this change.

The first two papers, by Amarjit Kaur (University of New England) and Manjiri Kamat (University of Mumbai), complemented each other well. Notably, they emphasised the importance of economic interests in shaping advances in health and medicine. The economic benefits that accrued from maintaining healthy workers were profound, such that colonial states were increasingly proactive in developing healthcare initiatives, including grants for tropical medicine research in Malaya (Kaur) and inoculation for workers in the Sholapur cotton industry (Kamat). In the debate at the end, keynote speaker Paul Greenough (University of Iowa) asked how important it is to think about colonial welfare and development policy as animated by the desire for a productive labour force. He noted that the 1995 World Development Report treated healthcare as an investment, arguing that if financial resources are provided for health and disease research, and for health services more generally, economic growth can also be enhanced. This improved productivity could further generate more resources for welfare improvements.

The significance of the colonial connection in the development process is another important issue. For Kaur, tropical medicine was a central aspect of British imperial policy, and the League of Nations Health Organization was particularly important in the field’s development and the timing of its advances. From the 1920s, an ideology of constructive imperialism energised actors to assess health issues and promote broader development.

It is important, though, to remember that the colonial link has not always been seen in a positive light. Gerard Hödl (University of Vienna), in his paper on development plans in Tanganyika, suggested that colonial officials may have placed too much emphasis on economic benefit and a corresponding lack of attention on welfare, which may have hampered the territory’s development. There is, however, the need to recognise the differences between policy and practice, as David Clover (Institute of Commonwealth Studies) warned, because official documents may not reflect what actually happened ‘on the ground’. The non-official perspective, which may be gleaned from Oxford Development Records Project files on medicine and public health held at the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies, could provide an interesting complement to the official perspective.

Though economic imperatives remained paramount, colonial states started to consider wider notions of development. The changing attitudes of the Colonial Office from the 1920s formed the basis of the paper by Margaret Jones (University of Oxford) on Jamaica. The Colonial Advisory Medical Committee set up in 1909 was able to intervene in colonial politics as early as 1925. Dr Mary Blacklock, the first and only woman to sit on the Committee, played an important role in promoting health policy for the colonies. Jones argued that Blacklock’s input was fundamental to the production and ideology of the Medical Policy and Colonial Empire Report in 1942. Jamaica is an interesting case for health policy as the conditions in the country were dire. A number of fairly damning reports created a climate for reform. In light of this, question-and-answer sessions were held on issues such as housing and nutrition to gain an understanding of what local people needed.

Drawing water from a well in Nigeria. Photograph by AJ Duggan, c.1960. Wellcome Library

Drawing water from a well in Nigeria. Photograph by AJ Duggan, c.1960. Wellcome Library

Ideas of necessity regarding colonial peoples were further explored by Michael Jennings (SOAS), whose paper reassessed the nature of the voluntary sector and its role in the development of healthcare in Tanganyika. He continually stressed the importance of context, the “need to look at specific shape and contours” of locations, the problem with using Western experience as the normative and the issue with external “perspectives on necessity”. This was also emphasised by Uyilawa Usuanlele (State University of New York), whose paper discussed the actors and factors in the implementation of colonial development in Nigeria: in this, he suggested that while the British order of priority was clean water, health and then education, for the indigenous people of Nigeria these priorities were reversed. There should also be recognition that local dynamics were just as influential in colonial development schemes as British prerogatives: in the case of African colonies, Leigh Gardner (British Museum) argued that development occurred as a response to local dissatisfaction about the return on tax collection.

This panel contributed towards many points that were raised throughout the conference. The Colonial Development and Welfare Act 1940, which provided metropolitan aid finance for investment in health and education, is often a starting-point for historians working on development in the British Empire, but the conference qualified the view that this legislation was a turning-point in colonial economic and social history. The discussions demonstrated how notions of development were contested and negotiated, and how outcomes (such as better health services) were case- contingent. Moreover, the geographical breadth of the topics covered in this panel, and the interesting insights that were gained as a result, suggest that there may be real value in comparing the observations and phenomena of different colonies from different continents.

Y C Daniel Chan is a graduate of the University of York. Joanna Lunt is a postgraduate student at the University of York.

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