History of Medicine in India: Reading Recommendations for Doctors and Other Healthcare Practitioners

“A group of Plague staff, Karachi, India [now Pakistan]. Photograph, 1897.” Credit: Wellcome Collection

Over the past two years I fortunately have had the time and resources to read some excellent scholarship on the history of medicine and public health in India. These books and articles have helped me better understand the historical origins and trajectories of the different unique aspects of healthcare in our country.

For example, one of the most common themes in discussions on public health in India is federalism — the fact that much of the decision-making power lies in the hands of state and other local governments and not the Central government. [Federalism is in my opinion is absolutely important and necessary, and recent trends towards undermining it are highly worrying.] However, it is not commonly known that the origins of this power-sharing lie in the politics of India’s struggle for independence during the British colonial rule. In the late 1800s Indians were becoming more and more assertive in demanding autonomy, and British administrators had to make increasingly expansive compromises. Public health was considered by the British as a kind of dispensable area of governance, a subject which they could bring themselves to part with in order to placate politically demanding Indians. In the late 1800s, for example, many local city governments — with mostly Indians in charge — received the power to control public health policy within the confines of their regions.

The most significant arrangement, however, came about in 1918–19 with the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms which transferred several subjects of administration to provincial governments (the equivalent of state governments of today), which were beginning to be led by Indian as against British officers. Public health and sanitation were among those subjects. These 1919 reforms were thus the beginning of the way public health has been conceived in India ever since, with power shared between states and the Centre, and with states rightly getting the larger say.

I decided to create the following lists of books and articles (which I’ll continue to expand) to introduce healthcare professionals and other interested persons to some important scholarly books and articles that help us understand such fascinating nuances of medicine and healthcare in India. Generally when medical students and doctors come across any writing on the history of medicine, it mostly is framed in terms of “glorious indigenous past” or “great doctors and researchers doing great things/saving humanity” themes. We rarely are exposed to detailed and elaborate analyses of events, people, and communities, and of the complex social, political and economic forces which have influenced healthcare and medicine. Scholarly history writing does exactly that, and in my opinion is essential reading if one wishes to understand the world of healthcare more comprehensively than how it is taught in medical colleges.

“Lady Hardinge Medical College and Hospital, Delhi: an operation taking place. 1921.” Credit: Wellcome Collection


Overview (and the professions):

David Arnold’s Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India

Biswamoy Pati and Mark Harrison ed. The Social History of Health and Medicine in Colonial India

Mridula Ramanna’s Western medicine and public health in colonial Bombay: 1845–1895

Madelaine Healey’s Indian Sisters: A History of Nursing and the State, 1907–2007

Roger Jeffery’s The politics of health in India

Poonam Bala’s Medicine and Medical Policies in India: Social and Historical Perspectives

Sunil Amrith’s Decolonizing International Health: India and Southeast Asia, 1930–65

Communicable diseases and epidemics:

Sanjoy Bhattacharya’s Expunging Variola: The Control and Eradication of Smallpox in India, 1947–1977

Niels Brimnes’s Languished Hopes: Tuberculosis, the State and International Assistance in Twentieth-century India

Sanjoy Bhattacharya et al’s Fractured states: smallpox, public health and vaccination policy in British India, 1800–1947

Reproductive health and gender:

Sanjam Ahluwalia’s Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877–1947

Mohan Rao’s From Population Control to Reproductive Health: Malthusian Arithmetic

Sarah Hodges’s Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India, 1920–1940

Sarah Hodges ed. Reproductive Health in India: History, Politics, Controversies

Samiksha Sehrawat’s Colonial Medical Care in North India: Gender, State, and Society, c. 1830–1920

Mental health:

Waltraud Ernst’s Colonialism and Transnational Psychiatry: The Development of an Indian Mental Hospital in British India, c. 1920–1940

Sarah Ann Pinto’s Lunatic Asylums in Colonial Bombay Shackled Bodies, Unchained Minds

Indian systems of medicine:

Guy Attewell’s Refiguring unani tibb: plural healing in late colonial India

Dominik Wujastyk’s The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings

Projit Bihari Mukharji’s Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies, and Braided Sciences

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan’s Old Potions, New Bottles: Recasting Indigenous Medicine in Colonial Punjab (1850–1945)



Sunil Amrith’s Health in India since independence

David Arnold’s Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India

Roger Jeffery’s 1977 Allopathic medicine in India: A case of deprofessionalization?

Jahnavi Phalkey’s Science, History, and Modern India

Monica Saavedra’s Politics and Health at the WHO Regional Office for South East Asia: The Case of Portuguese India, 1949–61

Communicable disease and epidemics:

Nandini Bhattacharya’s The Logic of Location: Malaria Research in Colonial India, Darjeeling and Duars, 1900–30

Helen Power’s The Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine: institutionalizing medical research in the periphery

Sanjiv Kakar’s Leprosy in British India, 1860–1940: Colonial politics and missionary medicine

Non-communicable disease:

Aparna Nair’s ‘They Shall See His Face’: Blindness in British India, 1850–1950

David Arnold’s British India and the “Beriberi Problem”, 1798–1942

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan’s An irritable state: the contingent politics of science and suffering in anti-cancer campaigns in South India

David Jones and Kavita Sivaramakrishnan’s Transplant Buccaneers: P.K. Sen and India’s First Heart Transplant, February 1968

Mental health:

James Mills’s The History of Modern Psychiatry in India, 1858–1947

Reproductive health and gender:

Maneesha Lal’s The Politics of Gender and Medicine in Colonial India: The Countess of Dufferin’s Fund, 1885–1888

Ambalika Guha’s The ‘Masculine’ Female: The Rise of Women Doctors in Colonial India, c. 1870–1940

Durba Mitra and Mrinal Satish’s Testing Chastity, Evidencing Rape: Impact of Medical Jurisprudence on Rape Adjudication in India

Indian systems of medicine:

Shireen Hamza’s A Hakim’s Tale: A Physician’s Reflections from Medieval India

Dominik Wujastyk’s The Wellcome Ayurvedic Anatomical Man And His Sanskrit Context

Physician. PhD student, History of medicine @Harvard. History & culture of India. Public health. Twitter @kikumbhar. Blog: kirankumbhar.com