Mapping the Medical Legacies of British Colonialism

Reflecting on her recent fellowship at Art HX, researcher Shelley Angelie Saggar explores how objects and photographs recall the medical legacies of British colonialism, as well as her own family history.

I am standing in a gallery, gazing down upon a round, rubber object. Dark brown in colour, it sits innocuously in the display case, a yellowed, looped string trailing behind it, Despite its small size, the strange message stamped across it draws my eyes downwards; ‘PRORACE’, it reads (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. John Bell and Croydon Ltd., ‘Prorace’ Cervical Cap, ca. 1915-1925, designed by Marie Stopes. Courtesy of the Science Museum Group Collection. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In 2019, I was a Research Fellow at the Science Museum in London. Working on the research programme that accompanied Wellcome: The Medicine Galleries which opened in November of that year, my research focused on culturally sensitive items, particularly those that were collected during the era of British colonialism. My research was mostly concerned with items that are considered sacred and/or kept secret by their respective cultural communities. However, in the context of a historical medical collection, the rationale for collecting such items is often associated with problematic histories of racialism and eugenics. 

In 2022, I was invited to research these ideas as part of a fellowship with Art HX. The programme, which explores visual and medical legacies of British colonialism, takes its name from the clinical abbreviation for history used in health professions–HX–to delve into the interwoven legacies of visual art, colonialism, and the history of medical education and practice. The round, rubber object printed with the curious message had come to my attention during my time as a researcher at the Science Museum in 2019, and so I chose it as a starting place for the research constellation I was invited to produce.

This small piece of rubber sitting in the gallery also speaks to how colonial infrastructure and ideology has inflected histories of health and medicine. It is a cervical cap, used for contraceptive purposes, made by the celebrated British birth control campaigner, Marie Stopes, who adapted the original design and included her own branding. The ‘PRORACE’ message refers to Stopes’ fervent belief in eugenics – the pseudoscientific theory of so-called “selective breeding”. These aspects of Stopes’ commitment to reproductive education in London and overseas are now better acknowledged, but many still insist she is ‘best remembered as a feminist and birth control pioneer’ (Science Museum Group, n.d.). This pioneering characterisation brushes an important, and troubling, aspect of her legacy under the carpet, instead insisting on a narrative of continual progress – a mythology that we often see in the stories we tell about the history of health and medicine today.

Fig. 2. Reproduced with kind permission of the Christian Medical Fellowship, London’

‘Conquest by Healing’

One of the quieter stories of medical progress and power lies in the ways in which medical education itself was deployed in the era of British colonialism. On the one hand, education and a vocational career in medicine can be interpreted as a source of empowerment, particularly for women. However, the urgency of teaching Western medical methods was often described using the language of the so-called “civilising mission”. 

Whilst conducting my research for my Art HX fellowship, I was reminded of a previous experience in a gallery, where, much like the interest piqued by the ‘PRORACE’ contraceptive cap, I’d been captivated by an object on display. In the summer of 2017, I joined Wellcome Collection during the development of the Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine exhibition. Although I was not working on the curatorial or research aspects of the show, a photograph that was to be included in the exhibition immediately caught my attention (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Lady Hardinge Medical College and Hospital, Delhi: women students in a laboratory. Unknown photographer, 1921. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. Attribution-Non Commercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The photograph depicts a group of girls standing in a medical laboratory. Clad in white saris, their dark hair is neatly arranged and occasionally covered by the loose fabric. Clustered around medical equipment, they variously confront the camera lens or gaze intently at their work. The girls are students at Lady Hardinge Medical College, an institution that was established in 1916 and is still in operation today.

I was immediately struck by the resemblance of these girls to photographs I had seen of my maternal grandmother whilst she was a nursing student in northern India. Although my grandmother undertook her training at a different college – Ludhiana Christian Medical College – and despite the fact that the photograph in the Wellcome exhibition was taken before she was even born, there are nonetheless resonances between the image and our family stories that signal the symmetries between the schools. Both were formed in response to their founders’ identifying a lack of facilities for girls to undertake medical training, and both record the intertwined history of colonisation and medical education for women in the Indian subcontinent. 

Ludhiana Christian Medical College was the first medical college for women in India. Dr Edith Brown, the College’s missionary founder, felt the need to train native women in medicine, due to what she viewed as the ‘ignorant’ and ‘superstitious’ practices of the dai’s/local midwives (Brown 1930). Early admissions criteria found in the College’s archives stipulates that students ‘must undertake to work in some Protestant mission to the Heathen’ (North India School of Medicine for Christian Women 1900-1901) following their course of study. Dr Brown’s concerns are less overtly racialised perhaps than Marie Stopes’ florid visions of ‘hordes of Indians and Chinese’ (Hall 1977, 291) swamping the urban population of London and the globe more broadly, but are still framed through the lens of a benevolent paternalism that characterised these quieter aspects of imperial coercion and control.

Despite the dismissal of Indian women’s knowledge and the assumption of Western medical supremacy by the missionaries, I was struck by the insistence of my mother, my grandmother, and other women in our community who had undertaken similar nursing training, of the sincerity of their Christian faith. The oral archive of family stories I have grown up with emphasised the sense that religious conversion offered an escape from the constraints of class – and particularly caste – that would have otherwise been denied to women in their position. In refusing to be cast only as victims, their navigation of an otherwise exploitative system stands as testament to their strength and power. This insistence on agency in these women’s stories of conversion demonstrates how colonised peoples have always found ways to negotiate colonially-imposed constraints.

Coda: Mapping Maternal Histories

I was asked to contribute to the Art HX project a month before my grandmother passed away. Initially, I did not know what to write about. At the funeral I was rendered unable to speak and so my contribution to the project felt like the eulogy I was unable to offer her at the time. I was, however, cautious about sharing this with a public audience, and sought permission from my mother before proposing the Art HX piece, particularly for a predominantly academic audience. These, however, are the tools of my trade, so I felt this was what I was best equipped to do. 

My ambition for the piece was to draw out the resonances in the texture and purchase of British colonialism in its various guises of women’s health, narratives of medical progress, and so-called ‘civilisation’ as these have operated in relation to colonial imaginings of the subcontinent. Bringing together my own experience as a museum worker and researcher of (post)colonial and Indigenous literatures and cultures together with my inheritance of my grandmother’s stories, the final piece crafts a constellation between three objects of material culture, currently all held in London (Saggar 2023). Together, these objects continue to speak to the stories of women’s agency, resistance, and refusal that remain urgent in our critical assessments of medical history today. 

The stories embedded in material culture are sometimes neglected in favour of more straightforwardly academic methods. Yet by initiating critical conversations around objects, we as researchers in the medical and health humanities might find renewed ways to locate these research conversations in situated spaces such as museums and archive collections. By weaving the stories of my grandmother’s life into the relationships I have teased out between these objects, I found a way to draw together my responsibilities to my mother’s family with my research practice. My grandmother was a formidable woman who navigated the world she was born into and made it her own. Her memory lives on in her descendants, and in the stories we are bound by her memory to rehearse and remember. 

Shelley Angelie Saggar is a CHASE-funded PhD researcher and museum worker based across the Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies and the School of English at the University of Kent. She works as a Research Assistant on the ‘Indigenous Futures’ exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.

References

Brown, Edith Marie. “An Introduction to Ludiana” (Women’s Christian Medican College, Ludhiana) 1930. MS 381189, Box 2, Ludhiana Medical College, SOAS Library Special Collections, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 8. 

Hall, Ruth E. 1977. Passionate Crusader: The Life of Marie Stopes New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Prospectus of the North India School of Medicine for Christian Women, 1900-1901. MS381189, Box 1, Ludiana Medical College, SOAS Library Special Collections, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 36. 

Saggar, Shelley Angelie. 2023. “Mapping maternal histories of colonial medicine.” Art HX. https://artandcolonialmedicine.com/mapping-maternal-histories/ 

Science Museum Group. n.d. ‘“Prorace” cervical cap.’ https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk,/objects/co96336/prorace-cervical-cap-cervical-cap.

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