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A Compilation of Data on Calcutta’s Hospitals During Company Rule (Review)

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Srilata Chatterjee. 2017.
Western Medicine and Colonial Society: Hospitals of Calcutta, c.1757-1860
Delhi: Primus Books
ISBN 9789384092986

Srilata Chatterjee’s comprehensive study of Calcutta’s hospitals during East India Company rule accomplishes two goals: first, to make available some original sources that are not easily accessible; and second, to compile the information about hospitals in Calcutta that has been published in many disparate sources. In both of these attempts, the volume makes valuable contributions to both the history of medicine in the city and the history of Company administration.

This volume includes a number of original sources that are published in full or part to make them accessible for other researchers. Some examples are the ‘Tables of [Patients’] Diets’ provided in the Appendices (pp. 289–90) and a list of the staff at the Native Hospital in 1841 (p. 151). She has also provided long quotations and analyses of some original sources, including a number of case studies from James Ranald Martin’s The Influence of Tropical Climate on European Constitution (John Churchill, 1856). One important reproduction is the ‘Map of the European Lunatic Asylum, Bhowanipore’ (p. 126), taken from an 1856–7 report. Unfortunately, this map is printed in such a way that the labels are mostly illegible, rendering it of little use for either understanding Chatterjee’s analysis or further research.

Because Calcutta was such an important part of British rule, the city’s hospital system has invariably come up in innumerable studies of the development of medicine and public health facilities in British India. In this book, Chatterjee has gathered this information from a wide number of published secondary sources to expand the picture of hospitals in Calcutta. This is especially true of her discussion of mental institutions in Calcutta, where she draws heavily on the work of Waltraud Ernst. The result is a comprehensive study that not only provides a thorough overview of the development of Calcutta’s hospital system, but also points readers to a number of other sources that have studied colonial medicine in a wider context.

That being said, the volume would have benefitted from taking a wider view of the development of medical and public health infrastructure with reference to Company administration. The 40-page first chapter of the book attempts to tell the entire early history of Calcutta from its founding, including the growth of the city, administrative changes, and the social lives of both Europeans and ‘Natives’. This discussion seems unnecessary: not only does it go far beyond the subject of the book, but the contents of this chapter has little relation to the material presented in the rest of the volume. This space would have been better utilized by a discussion that placed the creation of hospital systems in Calcutta in the context of British rule and the development of modern Western medicine worldwide.

This book also contains innumerable typographical and grammatical errors that sometimes render the provided information unclear. This is compounded by repetitions and contradictory information. For example, in the introduction to the early history of the Presidency General Hospital (pp. 72-4), she states that ‘the history of the origin of the old Presidency General Hospital is shrouded in obscurity’ (p. 72). Then she recounts the history that is given in the major sources Indian Medical Gazette and Bengal, Past and Present, and substantiates this history with original sources found during her own research in the archives. Such contradictory statements appear sporadically throughout the text, a lack of consistency that makes it difficult to use as a resource and at times frustrating to read.

The text is thoroughly cited in endnotes for each chapter, but I did find several cited sources that were not listed in the bibliography. Since the full bibliographic citation is also given in the first endnote in which each source is mentioned, however, this does not cause great difficulty for the reader.

Overall, this book provides a comprehensive resource covering the history of Calcutta’s hospital system, including the founding and funding of different institutions, the development of patient treatments, the hiring and salaries of doctors and other staff, and the government regulations pertaining to all such practices. The wealth of focused data presented here will be valuable for anyone interested in medical history during the East India Company’s rule.

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