Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa

Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa

Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa

Healing Bodies, Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa

Synopsis

Missionary medicine flourished during the period of high European imperialism, from the late-1800s to the 1960s. Although the figure of mission doctor - exemplified by David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer - exercised a powerful influence on the Western imagination during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, few historians have examined the history of this important aspect of the missionary movement. This collection of articles on Asia and Africa uses the extensive archives that exist on medical missions to both enrich and challenge existing histories of the clinic in colonial territories - whether of the dispensary, the hospital, the maternity home or leprosy asylum. Some of the major themes addressed within include the attitude of different Christian denominations towards medical mission work, their differing theories and practices, how the missionaries were drawn into contentious local politics, and their attitude towards supernatural cures. Leprosy, often a feature of such work, is explored, as well as the ways in which local people perceived disease, healing and the missionaries themselves. Also discussed is the important contribution of women towards mission medical work. Healing Bodies, Saving Souls will be of interest not only to students and historians but also the wider reader as it aims to define the place of missionary within the overall history of medicine.

Excerpt

David Hardiman

During the colonial era, mission doctors exercised a powerful hold over the Western imagination. They worked with sick people in remote parts of the globe, treating maladies that were seen to be as much social as physical. They laboured not only to restore health to the bodies of 'natives', but also to save their souls. Writing of southern Africa, Jean and John Comaroff argue that missionary rhetoric was one in which: 'images of healing and social amelioration infused each other, in which the blighted body served as a graphic symptom of moral disorder. Physical affliction suggested a [sin-sick soul].' Just as it had been Europe's responsibility to heal the wound caused by slavery, so it had become its duty to cure physical illness and moral sloth. These heroic figures were seen to carry on their difficult and dangerous work through a moral courage that was derived from strong religious faith. They provided a combination of Christian conviction, imperial mission, and science, a compelling amalgam for an age in which each such value was held in high regard. For many Christians, the medical missionary appeared to be straddling the ever-growing chasm between religious belief and secular science. In providing what seemed to be a Christian resolution to the challenge of modernity, they appeared – for a time – to be the new Man or Woman for the Age.

In the past two decades there has been a lot of excellent research and writing on the history of biomedicine in European colonial territories during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The chief focus has been on the ways in which colonial states sought to promote biomedical forms of treatment. Following Foucault, this has often been analysed in terms of the exercise of a disciplinary control. This was seen most strongly in the initiatives taken to combat epidemic diseases that threatened white functionaries of the colonial state. It is clear that few colonial powers were prepared to engage in major spending on medical facilities for the masses and it is generally recognised that the main purveyors of such medicine at the local level were missionaries.

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