Sarah Khurshid Khan, Curative Spaces: African Indian Ocean world femmes, Marjane and Uzza, engage in the simple act of creating during the monsoon. They infuse their world with local food-medicine-essences like black pepper കുരുമുളക്, cinnamon दालचीनी, clove خکیم, rose گل ورد, and bitter orange البرتقال زهر ماء. Steeped in indigenous sciences, the femmes advance their dynamic, multisensory healing arts, 2022.

Inspired by the Central Indian Ni’matnāma, Sarah Khurshid Khan reimagines the 16th century illustrated cookbook with a new playful visual critical fabulation in animation. The multimedia series are unfolding, ongoing, and ever-evolving.

Sarah Khurshid Khan (she/her) is a maker and scholar. Before the discipline of food studies formally existed, she cobbled together an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern history and Arabic, as well as several graduate degrees in public health, nutrition and a PhD in plant sciences/traditional ecological knowledge systems. At present, her food/culture study and research informs her art practice. A maker of prints, photographs, and documentary films, Khan has received grants, residencies, and fellowships to pursue writing, research, and multimedia expressions on food, culture, women migration, and healing. She has presented her creations at the Museum of the Moving Image, Queens Museum, and New York University, to name a few. To learn more about Khan’s work, visit and @sarahkkhan, Twitter and Instagram.

This animation was made by Khan during her 2021-2022 Art Hx Artist Residency with assistance from Aaron Granat.

The Art Hx Artist Residency has been made possible by the generous support of Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, Humanities Council, the Department of Art and Archaeology, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Program in Visual Arts.


Date posted: June 14, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Sarah Khurshid Khan, Curative Spaces, 2022

Categories: Cultivating Care

By Dr. Anna Reid
Writer, curator and historian of art
Art Hx 2021-2022 Interpretive Fellow

George Catlin, A Mandan Medicine Man, 1861/1869, Paul Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, 1965.16.85. Public Domain

I have chosen a set of nineteenth century paintings of Native American people, notably shamanic figures, which visualize complex and intricate spiritual and medicinal practices. Yet these ethnographic portrayals are foremost colonial representations which threatened the very ways of life and healing that they claimed to preserve.

George Catlin, Medicine Man, Performing His Mysteries over a Dying Man, 1832, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.161. Public Domain

Medicine Man, Performing his Mysteries over a Dying Man (1832) is an evocative portrayal in oil of a shamanic ritual. The armed healer performs in a bear pelt strung with feathers, snakes, and animal skins. The Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin (1796-1872) made the work during his encounter with the nomadic Blackfoot people in the course of five trips west between 1831 and 1837; the work was made for the purpose of documenting Native people for Catlin’s 1841 book North American Indians.[1]

George Catlin, Mah-tó-he-ha, Old Bear, a Medicine Man, 1832, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.129. Public Domain

Mah-tó-he-hah, Old Bear, a Medicine Man is another painting of a healer of the Mandan nation made by Catlin in the same year. “Old Bear” is a spectacular figure, painted and adorned with red, green, herb, and props in feather and fur. Catlin returns to the subject in the 1860s, depicting A Mandan Medicine Man with a patient and a captivated group of onlookers displaying fear and awe. These depictions of shamanic figures stand out among the hundreds of works that Catlin assembled into touring “Indian Galleries” then displayed in US cities and in London, Brussels, and Paris.

North American Indian shaman or medicine man healing a patient is a chromolithograph (plate 46) that is part of a broader set of illustrations by Captain Seth Eastman (1808-1875).[2] Eastman’s depiction of a medicine man shows a tepee dwelling where a patient is laid down beneath a blanket and furs. The shaman—eyes raised to a turbulent sky—wears a decorated tunic and works with a buffalo horn, large bowl, sword, cloth, and rattle, implying singing or chanting. Maine-born Eastman painted and drew scenes of Native American people at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling where he was posted from 1830 and again from 1841. In 1849, Eastman started work on several hundred illustrations for geographer and ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) whose Information Regarding the History, Conditions, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States is a six-volume study of Native Americans published in the 1850s.

The figure of the shamanic leader as medicine man is a trope of white European and US literary and artistic imaginations in the context of Britain’s American colonies that predates these early visual representations. Robert Southey’s 1805 poem Madoc makes a complex and evocative portrayal of its charismatic, shamanic Native American protagonist, Neolin, in a fiction derived from accounts of soldiers, settlers, traders, and missionaries. Neolin is a multi-faceted, resistant character, reminiscent of the war chief, Pontiac, who led armed rebellions against British rule from 1763 to 1766.[3] The mythic fictionalization of noble Native medicine men and their mystical, healing rituals in colonial art and literature turned them into spectral, powerful, romantic figures. Yet these representations are produced in the context of violent subjugation such that conversely, by the 1830s, the political force of Native American nations was being eroded and dismantled by colonial policies in Britain’s North America and the early United States.

The impetus to explore and document Native American life can be read in the context of a concerted colonial strategy. The Indian Removal Act was passed by US president Andrew Jackson in 1830. The policy, which forced relocation of Native American nations under the paternalistic premise of safeguarding their health and survival, was framed as an act meant to preserve a purportedly vanishing race; removal was described by the US government as the only alternative to extinction so that “if the Indians do not emigrate, they must perish.”[4] Portrayals of the shamanic figures represent the same logic: the cosmologies of ancient and intricate shamanic healing rituals are imagined as “preserved,” only in oil, as they are presented to be nearing extinction. Catlin’s touring representations of a “dying race” were a touring spectacularization and a commodification of this narrative of disappearance. Notably, he described his artistic endeavors as a monument to himself, and to Native American people. Well rehearsed descriptions of Catlin’s work and of Eastman’s, as original works of ethnology, must be considered in this regard: as part of a strategy to denigrate and remove Native American Nations.

In her An Indigenous People’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes the actions of the US government against Indigenous Nations as commensurate with the definition of genocide as set out in the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.[5] The Convention referred to “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Murder, land dispossession, and forced removal of Indigenous children and people by government agencies was carried out against the narrative backdrop of a “dying race” that was “doomed to perish.” Concurrently, disease, carried to North America by white settlers with little understanding or control of it, killed swathes of Native American people. In the 1780s, for example, a smallpox epidemic reduced the Mandan population from 3,600 to 1,250. In 1837, a second outbreak reduced the number of Mandan people to 150.[6]

The calamity associated with this constellation of paintings of medicine men by Catlin and Eastman, following the logic of settler colonialism, also represents gross non-compliance with obligations that the US government itself encoded in treaties forced upon Indigenous Nations. The contemporary Administration for Native Americans, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, details the legal principle of the “Trust Responsibility”:

Between 1787 and 1871, the U.S. entered into nearly four hundred treaties with Indian tribes. Generally, in these treaties, the U.S. obtained the land it wanted from the tribes, and in return, the U.S. set aside other reservation lands for those tribes and guaranteed that the federal government would respect the sovereignty of the tribes, would protect the tribes, and would provide for the wellbeing of the tribes.[7]

The fulfillment of Trust responsibilities to Native American Nations remains to be realized. The 1921 Snyder Act provided funds for Native healthcare. The Indian Health Service (IHS) has offered primary and emergency care, covering only 60 percent of the healthcare needs of eligible Native Americans; only individuals who are enrolled members of federally-recognized nations can receive care through this agency. The 2021 Stimulus Bill allocated a doubling of funding for the IHS. Yet Native Americans have a life-expectancy 4.4 years below average, and their communities have the highest rates of pre-existing health conditions. In the context of the global pandemic, Native Americans have died of COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of white Americans.[8]

This set of rich, detailed documentations of Native American medicine men by Catlin and Eastman points to complex indigenous cultural, spiritual, and medicinal practices that have powerful contemporary currency and significance, not least in the way that they speak of a therapeutic relationship to the land. Despite the logic of loss and erasure portrayed here, these healing practices continue to be shared within, and are used to sustain, Indigenous communities. These paintings and illustrations, as colonial representations confluent with an imperial strategy to dispossess and eradicate Native American Nations, are quite removed from the rhetoric of care and preservation invoked by the US government in the treaties that it imposed. In the late eighteenth century the federal government narrated its obligation to provide for the health and wellbeing of Native American people, an obligation that to the present is grievously unmet.

[1] George Catlin, Letters and notes on the manners, customs and condition of the North American Indians Volume 1 (London: Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, 1841), 40-41.

[2] Eastman depicted a scene that might not be appropriate for public viewership. As such, the work is not reproduced here and is pending additional review by the Art Hx team.

[3] Tim Fulford, “Prophets of Resistance: Native American Shamans and Anglophone Writers,” in Transatlantic Literary Exchanges, 1790-1870: Gender, Race, and Nation, eds. Julia M. Wright and Kevin Hutchings (London: Routledge, 2011), 77-99.

[4] Kathryn S. Hight, “‘Doomed to Perish’: George Catlin’s Depictions of the Mandan,” Art Journal Vol. 49, no. 2 (1990): 119-124.

[5] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).

[5] Kevin Konrad and Elizabeth Fee, “Old Bear: Mandan Medicine Man,” AM J Public Health Vol. 101, no. 1 (2011): 38-39.

[7] Administration for Children and Families,” American Indians and Alaska Natives – The Trust Responsibility, Fact Sheet,” Accessed February 16, 2022,

[8] “How do Native Americans get Healthcare?,” The Economist, April 20, 2021,

Date posted: June 8, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on The portrayal of the Native American medicine man or Shaman

Categories: Pathologies of Difference

By Luke Naessens
PhD Candidate, Princeton University and Art Hx Graduate Research Assistant

Pathologies of Difference maps the ways medicine and race shaped colonial expansion and traces their impact on perceptions of racial difference, disease, and health today. 

John Bartholomew, British empire throughout the world exhibited in one view, 1850s. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Public Domain

Colonialism depends on maps. Dividing the globe into discrete climactic, geopolitical, and cultural zones, cartography made the world legible and thus controllable. Maps like John Bartholomew’s British Empire throughout the world exhibited in one view made imperialist expansion both possible and visible. 

The margins of this map are populated with figures representing the peoples of the Empire’s colonized territories. Each of the world’s geographical zones was assigned a racial type. Mapping organized the colonial world. The following objects reveal how similar forms of visualization and representation have been applied to people’s bodies, transforming the diversity of human life into “maps” of racial difference.

John Emslie, The Principal Varieties of Mankind, 1850. Science Museum Group Collection. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence

Images like this 1850 “Geographical Diagram” by scientific illustrator John Emslie helped popularize the idea that humanity was divided into discrete races, legible in terms of visible bodily differences including skin color, hair texture, and face shape. The image, with individuals grouped by region, forms a map of humanity. Just as Britain was centered in geographical maps of empire, the focal point of this composition is a suited, white Englishman. Through its placement, this phenotype was established as a standard, from which the other “varieties of mankind” diverge to varying degrees. Images like this one helped establish hierarchies which informed how people understood race. In popular culture, scientific research, and medical practice, the bodies that deviated from this standard were pathologized as abnormal, deformed, or deficient.

Richard Bridgens, “Negro Heads with Punishments for Intoxication and Dirt-eating,” in West India scenery with illustrations of Negro character, the process of making sugar, &c. from sketches taken during a voyage to, and residence of seven years in, the island of Trinidad (plate 2), 1836?. Yale Center for British Art. Public Domain

These hierarchies were used to justify exploitation. In the Caribbean and US South, plantation physicians transformed the behavior of enslaved African people into spurious medical conditions like Cachexia Africana, a “disease” which supposedly manifested as a compulsion to eat soil and was thought to only affect Black people. Patients were forced to endure violent “treatments,” including a metal mask which prevented them from eating. As a scientific discipline, medicine has often served to legitimize such violence by making racial categories appear like facts of nature. The use of scientific authority to make racist biases seem objective, and racial injustices seem natural, is today known as “scientific racism.”

John Bull defending Britain against the invasion of cholera; comparing the Reform Bill to the cholera epidemic. Coloured lithograph, c. 1832. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Scientific racism and imperial cartography divided the globe and its peoples into manageable races and zones. Yet colonialism also violently reshaped that map, especially through the unprecedented displacement of human populations to distant parts of the world as a result of the slave trade, indentured labor, and settler colonialism. 

United States Navy Department Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Man-made malaria, 1945. National Library of Medicine. Public Domain

One consequence of these processes was the global spread of infectious diseases like cholera and malaria. The cholera pandemics of the nineteenth century originated in India but were spread worldwide along British trade and military networks, for example. Malaria became an urgent concern for the United States military in the 1940s, as their occupation of tropical Pacific nations exposed their forces to pathogen-carrying mosquitos. In images such as these, however, racialized peoples were identified as vectors of these diseases, obscuring the critical role of colonial expansion in facilitating their transmission. Just as bodily differences were pathologized, diseases were racialized. This legacy can still be felt in the framing of COVID-19 and its variants as “Chinese,” “Indian,” or “South African” viruses.

Today, race is largely discredited as a scientific concept, but these histories continue to shape our understandings of the body and our access to health. This “Ancestry Composition Chromosome Painting” is used by the DNA-testing company 23andMe to visualize its customers’ genealogical data based on chromosome sequencing. Visually, this colorful contemporary graph scrambles the logic of John Emslie’s nineteenth-century diagram. Rather than a set of visibly distinct “principal varieties of mankind,” it suggests that each individual is the product of long and complex histories of migrations and mixings. However, it also continues to divide human life into geographical categories—“Iberian,” “Native American,” “African Hunter-Gatherer”—which recall nineteenth-century maps like that by Emslie. Do these kinds of visualizations help dismantle colonial constructs of race, or risk relocating them at an even deeper level of the body than skin, hair or facial features: in the genes themselves? 

Pathologies of Difference traces the intersections of race, medicine, and colonialism. In doing so, we hope to redraw the map and open up new spaces for understanding health, illness, and care.

Bennett, Judith A. “Diseased Environments.” In Natives and Exotics: World War II and Environment in the Southern Pacific, 49-74. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009.

Brown, Daid Blayney. “Mapping and Marking.” In Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past, edited by Alison Smith, David Blayney Brown, and Carol Jacobi, 14-39. London: Tate Publishing, 2015.

Hogarth, Rana. Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Pierce, Kathleen. “Are Our Genes Really Our Fate? DNA’s Visual Culture and the Construction of Genetic Truth.” Nursing Clio. April 24, 2018.

Prashad, Vijay. “Native Dirt/Imperial Ordure: The Cholera of 1832 and the Morbid Resolutions of Modernity.” Journal of Historical Sociology 7, no. 3 (September 1994): 243-260.

TallBear, Kim. Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Date posted: April 28, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Pathologies of Difference: An Introduction

Categories: Pathologies of Difference

By Joseph Litts
PhD Student, Princeton University and Art Hx Lead Graduate Research Assistant

The Art Hx framework for “Medicalized Space” takes a broad perspective to consider how individuals have chosen to map medicine onto humans and environments to justify exploitation. Simultaneously, multiple histories of radical care interrupt these trajectories of settler colonialism. The materials explored through this framework highlight obscure links between spaces, health, and well-being. We research this past so that we might understand the present—and importantly—so that we might collaborate toward a better future. 

For me, “space” is first and foremost another word for “building.” “Medicalized space” reminds me of hospitals, dentist offices, and other places where sick people might be treated and cured. Ideas about sickness and health are culturally specific, of course. Sometimes, these spaces of care have furthered settler colonialism. An example might be found in this 1940s photograph below. In it, a nurse draws blood in an institutional setting. 

Frank Royal, Nurse Takes Blood Sample from Boy at the Indian School, Port Alberni, B.C., during a Medical and Dental Survey Conducted by the Department of National Health and Welfare, 1948. Credit: F. Royal/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada. Public Domain

This image is from a group of photographs that document pseudo-scientific nutritional experiments at Canada’s residential schools. The Canadian government created this school system (active from 1894 to 1947) to forcibly remove Indigenous children from their homes and assimilate them into Euro-Canadian culture. A key component of this program was the dislocating effect of the new space. Tens of thousands died, in part due to malnutrition masked as science and a place of bodily and psychological harm masked as a school. 

The nutritional experiments across Canada involved selectively starving First Nations children. Doctors then observed the effects of various vitamin deficiencies, measured through blood samples. The experiments produced no meaningful knowledge and caused great suffering. Yet, as Ian Mosby has shown, the Euro-Canadian doctors in charge considered the experiments to be a form of care. These doctors claimed that the residential school system was a healthful, medical space. This image and this historical moment are an example of the links between space, place, environment, colonialism, and healthcare that Art Hx seeks to investigate through the “Medicalized Space” framework.

* * *

Writing this introduction leads me back to my question: “How do I know that a space is medical?” I am based in the United States, and here, signs with words like “doctor,” “hospital,” and “urgent care” offer a clue. But there are more covert ways a space could indicate that it is medical. The design and furnishings of a space can signal its uses. Many academy-sanctioned medical spaces I’ve visited in the US have diffused, fluorescent lighting. Vinyl upholstery that can be easily disinfected. People in pale green or blue uniforms. White lab coats. Chrome, glass, steel, and rubber. These are materials that can indicate industry, hygiene, and modernity. Something like the operating room in this clip from Grey’s Anatomy

Of course, this answer to my question is also culturally specific, and the spaces I’ve just described are common, but also Euro-centric. 

A space might be medicalized because of its spiritual significance. It might be medicalized because it is where healing rituals and/or rites of passage are performed. Many of these spaces can be temporary or part of a broader geological landscape. Examples could include amaboma (shelters made of grass in South Africa) or Uluru (a significant landmass in Australia). Out of respect for the traditional owners of these knowledges, we do not reproduce images of many of these spaces. Making or circulating images of them can be sacrilegious. 

The answer to my question also depends on how one defines “space.” “Space” can be a synonym for “building,” of course, but it can also refer to a broader place. A broader medicalized landscape might be found among various summer vacation destinations for the wealthy in Europe and North America. One might think of affluent city dwellers fleeing urban spaces for the seashore or mountains during the summer—the opening premise for Billy Wilder’s film The Seven Year Itch (1955). This seasonal migration is an exercise in elite solidarity. However, it has been justified under the guise of seeking healthier air. 

Frontispiece in The cocoon: a rest-cure comedy by Ruth McEnery Stuart (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1915). Public Domain Mark

From this perspective, can sanatoriums in the Swiss Alps or Arizona be considered “medicalized spaces”? Specific environmental qualities—high elevation, low humidity, and bright sunshine—led to building luxurious structures to achieve a health goal of better breathing. This ideal climate happens to coincide with vacations. Today, one might call these sanatoriums merely resorts for wealthy tourists, but they were built to facilitate healing from tuberculosis (then called consumption) due to their relationship with a broader landscape. The 1915 novel The Cocoon: A Rest Cure Comedy exaggerates this tension between recovery and holiday. The book’s frontispiece shows a smiling woman asking her white-jacketed attendant how she should describe her rest cure. She is reclining under a chintz duvet in a clipped box garden. The novel casts this manicured terrace as a medical space, improbable as this may seem. 

Davos, Switzerland, and Tucson, Arizona, have thus become famous for their supposedly healthful climates. Simultaneously, other places have become infamous for harboring disease. Many of these places are around the Equator, as this map and public health feature published in a 1944 issue of LIFE indicate. 

“The World Shewing the Geographical Distribution of the Human Species” in Crania americana or, A comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America: to which is prefixed an essay on the varities of the human species by Samuel George Morton, (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839). Public Domain Mark

This map was made in 1839 to illustrate a pseudo-scientific treatise on human variety: Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana. In this image, racial difference is created and maintained by tying false ideas about race to landmasses. Morton linked the two through a contrived equation of skull shape and size. Morton took many of these measurements under the guise of providing medical care. His book had an uneasy, close relationship with the medical establishment. This is an example of the ways the broader landscape has been medicalized, in this case for nefarious ends.

* * *

What—where—are medicalized spaces?

Through this Art Hx framework, we begin to understand not only the experiences and uses of medicalized space, but also representations of such spaces with essays, close looking exercises, and object lessons. We illuminate hidden or undiscussed links between care and space. Not all of these are benign. And some spaces advertised as “healing” might have had the opposite effect for those who passed through them, like the Port Alberni residential school. 

Art Hx seeks to show the relationships between politics, health, design, landscape, the environment, and architecture. We look to the past to understand the complex lived realities of the present and to imagine possibilities for a better future. 

What kinds of spaces might offer better, alternative forms of health or care? As you navigate through the site and our digital content, we welcome you to imagine with us. 

Date posted: April 25, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Medicalized Space: An Introduction

Categories: Medicalized Space

By Dr. Anna Reid
Writer, curator and historian of art
Art Hx 2021-2022 Interpretive Fellow

Art Hx researchers have located a range of images that speak to the strategic development and significance of medicines in British colonial and postcolonial contexts. Inspired by their work, I have gathered four images that are notable in their promotional or press aspect, their diverse, specific geographies, and in the questions that they raise about the uneven structures of medical research.

Draft Bill-head of a pharmacist selling a remedy for Yellow Fever, 1805. © Trustees of the British Museum. NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The 1805 billhead of a company selling a “remedy and cure” for yellow fever offers a way into this constellation as an exploration of four charged images. It will glimpse and point to a long and present history of the public representation of British colonial medical treatments, images which the constellation contextualizes in their links to the extractive logic of empire. The billhead, printed and distributed as a paper receipt to purchasers of the purported remedy, features the figure of Britannia, a personification of Britain. The deified female warrior, armored and shielded, is served by cherubic figures, some with darker skin tones, indicative of colonized lands and subjects. The strength, health, and fecundity of the protagonist becomes the promise of this medicine, as a prophylactic against the scourge of tropical disease. Yellow fever, so called because of the disease’s symptom of jaundice owing to liver damage, was transmitted from its origins in Africa to the Americas as a result of the trafficking of enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean since the sixteenth century. Accessible via the admiralty, this costly commodity was devised for the use of imperial administrators.

Sir W. Denison and others planting the first quinine tree in the Neilgherry hills, India. Wood engraving by M. Jackson, 1862. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Another print, dated to 1862 and also making representations on behalf of empire, extends this consideration of the development, production, and use of tropical medicine. Shared as an illustration for The London Magazine, the print is a picturesque depiction of the Neilgherry Hills, as a colonized territory of India (a district of the Madras Presidency, covering southern India and then-named Ceylon). William Dension, the main protagonist of the image, became governor of Madras in 1861. The rolling contours depicted beneath a buoyant sky imply an open, temperate landscape, which on closer inspection is a vast clearing prepared for the planting of cinchona trees, the source of the antimalarial quinine, native to western South America. With the ceremonial placing of the first tree marked in this engraving, cultivation begins, and immense yields are implied: the poised colonial administrators claim and oversee the land, worked by colonized subjects here represented in three figures posed to indicate balance and cooperation. As stocks of “the Peruvian bark” were depleted by the mid-nineteenth century, this experimental new cultivation in India was of key strategic importance to the occupation and administration of the tropical colonies. The historical and cultural role and significance of Indigenous medicinal plants was lost when the cultivation of cinchona was introduced in colonial India.[1] A diverse range of Indigenous peoples—Todas, Kotas, Badagas, Irulas, and Kurumbas—continue to inhabit the Neilgherry Hills. The role of the traditional ecological knowledge of the Todos has been emphasized in the contemporary work of repairing the area’s significant indigenous biodiversity, which was dramatically afflicted by the British company and crown governments in the nineteenth century.[2]

Sir Ronald Ross, C.S. Sherrington, and R.W. Boyce in a laboratory at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Gouache by W.T. Maud, 1899. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

Made by a press artist, a gouache (a type of painting created using an opaque watercolor technique) of researchers at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine at the time of its inauguration similarly projects an image of resilience and medical preparedness. It documents the formalization of the Tropical Medicine field in the establishment of the first school dedicated to its study in 1898 and the use of the microscope in line with the evolving germ theory of disease. As a major seat of empire, the port city of Liverpool was frequently afflicted by “tropical” disease. Outstanding physicians and scientists took up prestigious positions at the new institution, notably Ronald Ross who in 1897 discovered the malarial parasite in the gastrointestinal tract of a mosquito, thus generating new understanding of the disease’s transmission. In tracing a long development of the concept of tropical medicine through imperial history as investment in the healthcare of European troops and settler populations in the tropics, historian of medicine and empire Pratik Chakrabarti notes the Liverpool School’s work training doctors for colonial service, in “a medicine for empire where diseases were the great enemies of civilisation.” Nineteenth-century Africa, he remarks, was seen as a “white man’s grave.”[3] The Liverpool School was founded by and with the financial support of Alfred Lewis Jones, a shipping magnate with expansive interests in Jamaica and West Africa and a close engagement with the “Belgian Congo” and King Leopold II, who also made substantial donations to the school.

Scientists working at the LSHTM malaria lab. Image courtesy the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

A contemporary press photograph offers a way to complete this constellation, returning us to questions about the colonial nature of extraction, medical treatments, their efficacy, and their circulation. The image foregrounds a researcher at work in a state of the art laboratory, and it was used to announce research which has identified genetic variants in malaria parasites that enable them to infect individuals previously thought to have strong protection against the disease. The research is produced by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine with major partners and its own Medical Research Council (MRC) Unit The Gambia. Since 1947, MRC The Gambia has led “health research in West Africa to save lives and improve health across the world” and serves as the hub of its West Africa Research Programme.[4] Funders include a range of non-governmental organizations and pharmaceutical companies. It is also supported by the predominant global health organization, the WHO.[5] “Global Health” is a term that now supersedes Tropical Medicine, as a discipline inseparable from the history of colonialism. In 2021, LSHTM researcher Lioba A. Hirsch has asked, is it possible to decolonize global health institutions? She proceeds:

If we want to work towards health justice, the institutions that have been built on and benefitted from the racist exploitation of Black, Brown and Indigenous populations the world over cannot decolonize and keep their epistemic, political and financial power… Anti-racism and decolonization do not simply mean being nicer to staff of colour and people from LMICs [low and middle income countries]. It means cutting those people off who have benefitted from the system and used their privilege to discriminate against others or let an oppressive system go unchallenged… If we have learnt one thing from historical processes of decolonisation, it is that global missions should fill all of us with dread, even if they are designed to do good and improve local conditions. That is how colonialism was justified and how global health sees itself.[6]

As a field of research, contemporary global health evolved from an imperial history throughout which the development of medicines to protect colonists and their interests was of paramount strategic priority. The images discussed here variously project and circulate colonial and postcolonial advancements in the understanding and management of disease, and as a constellation, they invite and aid critical considerations of what an image of decolonized medical research might look like.

[1] Abhijit Mukherjee, “The Peruvian Bark Revisited: A Critique of British Cinchona Policy in Colonial India,” Bengal, past & present : journal of the Calcutta Historical Society Vol. 117 (1998): 81-102.

[2] Rodrigo León Cordero et al., “Elements of indigenous socio-ecological knowledge show resilience despite ecosystem changes in the forest-grasslands mosaics of the Nilgiri Hills, India,” Palgrave Communications Vol. 4, (2018): 1-9.  

[3] Pratik Chakrabarti, Medicine and Empire 1600-1960 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 141-163.

[4] “MRC Gambia,” London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, accessed January 31, 2022,

[5] In the context of a global pandemic, it is noteworthy that as of February 15, 2022, just 349,875 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in The Gambia, equating to 7.5 percent of the population.

[6] Lioba A. Hirsch, “The Art of Medicine, Is it possible to decolonize global health institutions?,” The Lancet Vol. 397 (2021): 189-190.

Date posted: April 22, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on Colonizers’ Medicines

Categories: Pathologies of Difference

By Dr. Edna Bonhomme
Historian of science, writer, and interdisciplinary artist
Art Hx 2021-2022 Interpretive Fellow

Medical knowledge is frequently shifting, with its evolution often depicted through text, as well as image. In the early modern period, there was a simple way to be instructed about the body; one was through experimentation, but another was through a textbook. The first printed medical textbook, Francisco Bravo’s Opera Medicinalia, was published in 1570 in Mexico City.[1] Hand-printed medical treatises had been a common practice for Arab, Chinese, and Greek physicians, who provided a list of therapeutic herbal reagents or the steps for bloodletting. The medical textbook, physicians, illustrators, and patients were part of that story. By the nineteenth century, medical instruction took on a different form when compared to the apprentice model of the medieval period, and detailed illustrations provided ample instruction about the human body as well as a visual landscape for how to conduct surgeries. One of the many textbooks that fulfilled this gap was Henry Savage’s monograph, The surgery, surgical pathology and surgical anatomy of the female pelvic organs. The text was used to instruct young medical students about the uterus, clitoris, and other reproductive organs.[2] Trained as a physician at the Westminster Hospital School of Medicine in London, Henry Savage (1810-1900) eventually became a lecturer on anatomy. Later, he was appointed physician at the Samaritan Free Hospital for Women and Children, of which he was one of the founders. By his death, his book had gone through three editions. In the introduction to the third edition, published in 1876, he noted that the anatomical images included in the book were selected from numerous sources and stated he chose images that were pathological in content.[3] Overall, the medical illustrations were “intended to illustrate the uterine displacements which can possibly happen.”[4]

J.B. Léveillé, Dr. James Marion Sims and Nurse Repairing a Vesico-vaginal Fistula Patient, 1870. In Henry Savage, The Surgery, Surgical Pathology, and Surgical Anatomy of the Female Pelvic Organs, in a Series of Coloured Plates Taken from Nature with Commentaries, Notes, and Cases, 2nd. ed. (London: J. & A. Churchill, 1870). Image Courtesy of the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, Karolinska Institutet

On the surface, Savage’s book appears as a standard nineteenth medical text, with its anatomical drawings flattening the abstraction of the human subject. However, Jean Baptiste Léveillé, an artist known for producing anatomical lithographs at the time, has illustrations in Savage’s book which capture the human body and its subsidiaries in many ways. The diagrammatic figures have topographical variations which focus on different body parts, in a way making flesh come to life. “Dr. James Marion Sims and nurse repairing a vesicovaginal fistula patient,” is an image of the late physician James Marion Sims, an unnamed nurse, and an unnamed patient. The physician is seated, with his back turned to the observer, while the nurse is glancing down, diligently assisting him. At the center of the image, a patient’s legs and rear-end are exposed; they wear white stockings, black shoes, and a dark blue garment. Surrounding the main image are several micro diagrams showing medical equipment and a visual organ. But what we see is how medicine’s pedagogy is contrasted with the rawness of the comatose body—the neutral colors painted on a cream-colored paper, the sequins and fringes, the anatomical parts home in on the vagina, a surgical procedure embroidered in stitching a wound. On display is a procedure for vesicovaginal fistula, a non-fatal reproductive ailment that can potentially complicate childbirth. Like fibroids today, there was no effective treatment or care. Missing from these figures are any mention of anesthesia and the name of the women who are portrayed.

Tainted Medicine: The Problem with J. Marion Sims
The image is didactic, primarily revealing the steps for repair. Seen through this lens, it’s hard to look at Léveillé’s lithograph without thinking about the murkiness of James Marion Sims’s legacy, the named subject of the diagram. Born in South Carolina, Sims (1813–1883) was a white southern man who benefitted from a class-based racial order. Sims, often called the “father of gynecology”, began as an ambitious plantation physician, the inventor of an inverted speculum and modified catheter.[5] In 1853, he moved to New York City, and two years later, he founded the Woman’s Hospital, and later he performed medical procedures on indigent women. Before he carried out these procedures on an ethnically diverse set of working poor women in New York, he experimented on the enslaved in the south. In recent years, his experiments and his role as an enslaver have been called into question, mostly because of the agency he exercised over his Black patients and the powerlessness many of them had as research subjects. Writing for the New York Medical Gazette and Journal of Health in 1854, James Marion Sims commented, “For this purpose [surgical experiments] I was fortunate in having three young healthy colored girls given to me by their owners in Alabama, I agreeing to perform no operation without the full consent of the patients.”[6] But then he continued that “the owners agree[d] to let me keep them (at my own expense) till I was thoroughly convinced whether the affection could be cured or not,” which suggests that the enslaved women did not have sole proprietorship over their bodies.[7] His experiments garnered him status as a demi-god within his profession and as a libertine by some Black women he experimented on. However, it is not just a matter of whether he exercised experimental and surgical techniques, but where and how he was able to do so. Sims and his defenders often justified these procedures by claiming that the surgeries far outweighed the horrific conditions of Black women’s lives. Yet, they never asked who made the lives of enslaved Black women so difficult in the first place.

Attending to Sim’s legacy is not only a matter of assessing contributions to the field of gynecological medicine, nor is it just a matter of taking him for his word; rather, it is important to see how his experiments were structured on Black women’s bodies and how this clarifies Black women’s reproductive lives as agents in the material and discursive economies of racial capitalism. As scholar and performer Terri Kapsalis notes, Sims took advantage of the situation by experimenting mostly on enslaved Black women who had little to no autonomy in a society that deemed most Black people as property.[8] During his lifetime, Sims set up a hospital, which initially had eight beds, for the enslaved and manumitted.[9] By design, the facility mainly served Black people, and it was here that Sims could carry out his procedures.

But Sims was not unique, nor was he the only nineteenth-century physician that had ethically dubious experiments. Medical doctors experimented on Black women’s bodies in intense and complicated ways. In 1835, four doctors conducted surgery on a thirty-five-year-old enslaved Black woman, removing her uterus. Such experiments also enacted science outside the realm of normalcy. Historian Deirdre Cooper Owens wrote, “Sims has been painted as either a monstrous butcher or a benign figure who, despite his slave owning status, wanted to cure all women from their distinctly gendered suffering.”[10] Owen opposes reductionism and says that his behavior was common for the time. But it begs the question: was Sims a monster or a product of his time? Some would argue that he was a brute. In Black on Both Sides, scholar C. Riley Snorton outlines Sim’s research and evinced that not only were his procedures opaque in their effectiveness but that in one surgery, his formerly enslaved patient Lucy nearly died after he failed to remove a sponge from her urethra.[11] What Snorton shows is that these medical experiments were not only exploitative in composition, but incompetent in their execution. The concerns raised by contemporary Black scholars like Cooper Owens and Snorton are relevant and pressing with regards to medicine’s dual ability to cause relief and pain. For scholars that attend to the misgivings of the oppressed, and most notably the wayward lives of Black women, what was surprising is how enslaved Black people were subjected to pain even though they could have been given anesthesia, as the reagent was available during Sims’s time.

This begs another question: what were the parameters of enslavement? Scholar Christina Sharpe offers insight. “The black and blackened bodies become the bearers (through violence, regulation, transmission, etc.) of the knowledge of certain subjection as well as the placeholders of freedom for those who would claim freedom as their rightful yield.”[12] Echoing Sharpe’s observation about the experience of enslaved Black people, enslavement was a difficult, exhausting affair, where their bodies were moved from the plantation to legal apartheid. Yet, beyond this gruesome reality, there were other possibilities for how Black women, and by extension Black women healers, moved through space. Black women doctors feature in the literary and historical landscape of the nineteenth-century US in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s 2021 historical fiction book Libertie, which provides a penetrating tale of the daughter of one of the first Black women doctors in the United States.[13] Although Greenridge’s text is a work of fiction, the events evoke real-life African American women who exercised their newfound freedom during the reconstruction era by practicing medicine through tender and spectacular modes of healing, such as when the protagonist proclaims, “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”[14]

Tintype of a woman carrying a medical bag, 1890s. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Public Domain

Visualizing Black Women Healers
In Tintype of a woman carrying a medical bag (1890), an anonymous Black woman holds a medical bag, likely full of healing supplies but also possibly packed with one of her pristine dresses. She looks straight at the camera, and in a way through us. Her bag is solely hers to carry, and in this vein, we are reminded of the potential ease and grace Black healers offered to their kinfolk. We do not see a natural landscape or office; she exists in a mostly white space with a cloth backdrop with something, perhaps faint trees, on a low horizon line. She is untethered and appears to be marching with an expression that contains the look of freedom. Perhaps this is a portrait she would have stood for in a photographer’s studio. She likely sought this out—maybe recording herself as she wanted to be seen.

This tintype is not an exception, nor was healing solely relegated to the formerly enslaved. In a sweeping account of medicinal healing in the eighteenth-century Americas, historian Londa Schiebinger examines in Secret Cures of Slaves how the enslaved found substance and space to heal even when they were living on a torturous plantation.[15] Not only did enslaved Africans improve the survival of crops in the Caribbean, but they also provided herbal remedies to the colonies. History, and literature inspired by it, show that Black women healed themselves and others, even when medical discrimination was strife.

Andrea Chung, Crowning I, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist

The expansive and rich accounts of Black women healers reveal themselves throughout various visual aesthetics, with Black women’s autonomy central to the radical praxis of maternal health. Take artist Andrea Chung’s Crowning I (2014), which is part of her wider practice that features unambiguously Black women on display. Constructed with collage, ink, and color pencil, the image appears initially raw, while also showing the women as regal people. On Chung’s subject’s head rests a golden uterus. With austere features, the woman stands barefoot, carrying colorful plants in both hands. Crowning I is part of a broader series of works using historical photographs to explore everyday Black women’s lives. Chung’s work is inspired by Black midwives in the Caribbean and the US South, showing how birthing practices are passed on from one generation of women to another; her work visualizes that this reproductive knowledge is not just found in the realm of the book but is embodied and intergenerational. The image is enchanting, not merely due to the gold, but because it fashions these women as queens. Chung’s piece might seem fantastical, or even have a candid style, but what it shows is that Black women’s bodies are marked by a luminous fluidity. Chung’s series shows an affably intimate set of Black bodies.

While distinct in their construction, artist, and purpose, Tintype of a woman carrying a medical bag and Andrea Chung’s Crowning I unearth how anatomical visual culture can be read as syncretic, that is fusing history with the present, integrating science with art. Both pieces situate Black women as medical stewards, infusing and molding knowledge. They put on display an epistemology invested in the labor of Black healers noticing, touching, and living within a history that was not built for their survival.

The more conscious society becomes of Black women’s humanity, the more we take stock of the violence of medical history and think about the representation of Black women’s bodies in medicine. In historian Rana Hogarth’s monograph Medicalizing Blackness, she tells the story of how science was not only racialized, but how doctors were active in creating and maintaining a fabricated racial hierarchy.[16] The growing work by Black feminist historians has proven that memory can be revised. For over a century after his death, James Marion Sims was celebrated and cited, yet his actions are no longer seen as acceptable medical experiments.[17] By the end of the twentieth century, Sims’s accolades were not enough when confronted with present-day ethical parameters that no longer excused his reprehensible actions. In writer J. C. Hallman’s “Monumental Error,” the author recounts how the statue of Sims in New York’s Central Park was being called into question at a seminal moment in 2017 when Confederate monuments were being taken down throughout the US.[18] By 2018, the statue of Sims was removed, marking the first time a statue was permanently demounted in New York City. As medicine—the procedures, experiments, and medical journals— transforms, so will the people that the profession reveres.

[1] Michael J. North, “The First Medical Book Printed in the New World, National Library of Medicine, October 29, 2014,

[2] Henry Savage, The surgery, surgical pathology and surgical anatomy of the female pelvic organs: in a series of colored plates taken from nature with commentaries, notes and cases, 5th ed. (London: J. & A. Churchill, 1882).

[3] Henry Savage, The surgery, surgical pathology and surgical anatomy of the female pelvic organs: in a series of colored plates taken from nature with commentaries, notes and cases, 3rd ed. (London : J. & A. Churchill, 1876).

[4] Savage, The Surgery, 3.

[5] Walker Gill Wylie, Memorial Sketch of the Life of J. Marion Sims, M.D. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884).

[6] James Marion Sims “Two cases of vesicovaginal fistula, cured,” New York Medical Gazette and Journal of Health 5 (1854): 1.

[7] Sims, “Two cases,” 1.

[8] Terri Kapsalis, “Mastering the Female Pelvis: Race and the Tools of Reproduction,” in Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture, ed. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 263–300.

[9] Stephen C. Kenny, “‘I Can Do the Child No Good’: Dr Sims and the Enslaved Infants of Montgomery, Alabama,” Social History of Medicine 20, no. 2 (2007): 223–241,

[10] Deirdre Cooper Owens, “More Than a Statue: Rethinking J. Marion Sims’ Legacy,” Rewire News Group, August 24, 2017,

[11] C. Riley Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 25.

[12] Christina Sharpe, Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 4.

[13] Kaitlyn Greenridge, Libertie (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2021).

[14]  Greenridge, Libertie, 1.

[15] Londa L. Schiebinger, Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2017), 91-112.

[16] Rana A. Hogarth, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 133-159.

[17] Barron H. Lerner, “Scholars Argue Over Legacy of Surgeon Who Was Lionized, Then Vilified,” The New York Times, October 28, 2003,

[18] J. C. Hallman, “Monumental Error,” Harper’s Magazine, November 2017,

Date posted: April 20, 2022 | Author: | Comments Off on More than an Image: Black Women Healers at the Helm of Modern Gynecology

Categories: Cultivating Care Pathologies of Difference

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