Shinjini Das: Sacred Histories of Public Health: Leper Asylums, and the Medical-Evangelical State in Twentieth Century British India
I am a historian of British Imperialism and Modern South Asia, with particular research and teaching interests in colonial science and medicine, and (more recently) colonial Christianity. I teach at the School of History, University of East Anglia; I’m the author of Vernacular Medicine in Colonial India: Family, Market and Homoeopathy (Cambridge University Press, 2019); co-editor of Chosen Peoples: Bible, Race and Empire in the Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press, 2020) and the Book Reviews Editor (South Asia) for the journal Asian Medicine (Brill). For my monograph Vernacular Medicine in Colonial India, I received the 2020 John Pickstone Prize, awarded every two years by the British Society for the History of Science for 'the best English-language scholarly book in the history of science, technology and medicine'. Having completed a PhD in History of Medicine from University College London, I have held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Cambridge (2012-2017) and University of Oxford (2017-2019). Provisionally titled Healing Heathen Lands: Christianity, Medicine, Empire, my current research project critically analyses the role of British Protestant missions and transnational humanitarianism in the making of colonial public health in India.
Sacred Histories of Public Health: Leper Asylums, and the Medical-Evangelical State in Twentieth-Century British India
University of East Anglia, United Kingdom
To what extent did histories of Christian conversion, public health and the imperial state converge in colonial South Asia? With a particular focus on the leper asylums in British India, I will explore the sustained interaction between the three to gain a deeper understanding of colonial medicine, global Christianity and of colonialism itself. By the first quarter of the twentieth century, medical governance and evangelisation became deeply intertwined in British India. I call this entanglement the ‘medical-evangelical state’. The British imperial state and protestant missions collaborated towards building and maintaining leprosy asylums, which became sites for imperial segregation, Christian conversion, biomedical experiments as well as colonial translation and vernacularisation. Indeed, the medical-evangelical state adopted a range of techniques to hegemonize the leper body. A focus on the colonial leper asylum reveals the range of translational practices through which biomedical evangelists and missionaries engaged with the language, culture and the religion of the colonized lepers with a view to convert them to Christianity and/or use them as subjects of biomedical drug trials. Consequently, in the colonial leper asylums, the distinctions between the worlds of faith and science, prayer and medicine, the spiritual and the pathological, the patient and the devotee as well as the imperial scientist and the missionary became blurred. The paper ends by reflecting on the contexts through which it was possible for the colonized leper to question and even resist the authority of the medical-evangelical state.