The Health of the History of Medicine in Southeast Asia

I’ve been lucky enough to squeeze in a short trip to Cambodia before the teaching term begins in earnest. I was attending the sixth History of Medicine in Southeast Asia (HOMSEA) conference, that this year was hosted in the tranquil surroundings of the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap.

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Wat Damnak, where the Center is located
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The Center’s conference hall

This was my first time at the conference, since I only really dabble in medical history. If the papers delivered over the three days are any indicator, then the field is in good health. All of the HOMSEA conferences have been hosted in the region making it more viable for historians working in Southeast Asian institutions to attend. This was a great success again this year. A particular highlight for me was an excellent panel on leprosy in the Philippines with presentations by Lorelia De Vianna, Ma. Florina Orillos-Juan, Ma. Mercedes G. Planta and Carmen C. Jimenez. This took us from the early years of spanish rule, through US occupation, to contemporary times. As was the innovative approach of Indonesian historian Martina Safitry who used “collective memory” to piece together the history of plague, leptospirosis and human-rat relations in Gunungkidul, Java.

The keynote speaker was Warwick Anderson. In his talk he reflected on his book Colonial Pathologies a decade after publication. In a confessional mode, he raised some difficult questions about the implicit audiences that historians of Southeast Asia, working on medicine and located in European and American institutions, often have in mind when they are writing. He confronted his own tendency in the past to address his own scholarly community in the States, running the risk of “Americanizing” Filipino history. This led to a wider discussion of where historians theoretical models come from, noting that scholars from and of the region are rarely cited as providing theory. In the end, he posed the question of whether Southeast Asia could thought of as a method.

It’s hard to pull out any general themes from the papers. As with all conferences, there was a huge range of topics covered: alchemy for HIV treatments in Myanmar; depictions of Agent Orange in Vietnamese museums; Thai sexological magazines in the 1970s; medical advertising in early-twentieth century Singapore; anthrax vaccinations for elephants in colonial Burma (no prizes for guessing who gave that paper)… and many other absorbing and intriguing subjects. Nevertheless, it was notable to me that there were a few papers that made connections and comparisons between Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, Laurence Monnais (the conference organizer) presented a fascinating paper on the imperial circuits in operation connecting French West Africa and Indochina in scientific attempts to find the “right” chaulmoogra plant, which was used to make oil for leprosy therapies. For the colonial period, and no doubt the Cold War era too, thinking about the parallels between events and processes occurring in Africa and Southeast Asia might prove very productive, pushing us to think beyond geo-politically defined regional geographies in the history of medicine whilst still “provincializing Europe”.

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