Patriotic Hygiene: Tracing New Places of Knowledge Production about Malaria in Vietnam, 1919-75

By Aso, Michitake | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Patriotic Hygiene: Tracing New Places of Knowledge Production about Malaria in Vietnam, 1919-75


Aso, Michitake, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Introduction

Nationalism has obscured the past of biomedical knowledge production about malaria and its control in Vietnam. Take for example a history of the medical accomplishments of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), published in 1976 by the Institute of Malariology, Parasitology, and Entomology (Vien sot ret-ky sinh trung-con trung, VSR-KST-CT). This history recounts how the malaria prevention projects of the Institute, led by Dang Van Ngu (1910-67) and Pham Ngoc Thach (1909-68), played a key role in the DRV's ability to wage war against the United States and the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). This publication also announced the Institute's intention to eliminate malaria throughout the newly established Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). (1) While this history rightly celebrates the gains made against malaria between 1958 and 1975, it masks the importance of previous biomedical knowledge generated about malaria during the colonial period. For example, this volume's bibliography does not cite any French publications on malaria that formed the basis for later Vietnamese and Soviet efforts in provinces such as Thai Nguyen.

Starting with the combination of colonial techniques and postcolonial motivations, this essay explores the imbrications of science, medicine, and nation during the creation of malaria control expertise in Vietnam. It argues that Vietnamese scientists drew from a mixture of industrial hygiene and nationalist aspirations in order to fashion their malaria knowledge. In other words, industrial hygiene developed on rubber plantations during the colonial period provided a vocabulary, techniques, structures, and personnel while nationalism gave a patriotic sheen to anti-malaria activities. In order to trace a genealogy of knowledge production, this essay discusses three periods in the making of malaria knowledge. The first period lasted from 1919 until the 1930s when (mostly) French medical researchers at the Pasteur Institute collaborated with rubber planters to reduce the horrendous mortality and morbidity rates on newly established plantations in Cochinchina (southern Vietnam). The second period occurred in the 1930s when Vietnamese and French scientists researching malaria in French Indochina began to incorporate nationalism into their writings about malaria prevention. The third period ran from the 1940s to 1975. During the Second Indochina War (Vietnam War), scientists viewed their activities through a patriotic lens even as they continued to rely on techniques developed during colonial times.

As a recent volume on 'Vietnamese medicine in the making' has made clear, many epistemological erasures took place during the construction of colonial and postcolonial medical knowledge. Michele Thompson's chapter shows how southern medicine was overshadowed by its northern neighbour even after Vietnamese independence from Chinese rule starting in 939 C.E. Laurence Monnais's chapter analyses a much later period when 'modern' scientific medicine helped shape postcolonial attitudes towards 'Sino-Vietnamese' and other Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM). (2) Moreover, words such as hygiene (ve sinh) were coined to describe malaria prevention efforts viewed as essential for the survival of the Vietnamese 'race' and integral to nation-building projects. Both of these chapters in Southern medicine for southern people highlight the importance of the 'science-isation' of medicine and the role of place in knowledge-making activities. (3)

These themes echo the experience of biomedicine in other Southeast Asian nations. Warwick Anderson and Hans Pols have shown that starting in the late nineteenth century, the sciences, including the medical sciences, became tied to nationalism and the nation-state in Indonesia and the Philippines. At the same time, the ties forged by anticolonial intellectuals between science and the nation committed these nation-states to the universalism of rationality and empires of empiricism. …

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