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Eastern and Western Approaches
to the Treatment of Cholera


Joanna Ng, Intern

Christopher Hamlin is Professor of History and of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame, and Honorary Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His book, Cholera: The Biography, is a volume in our series Biographies of Disease, which we will continue to explore after the new year (read previous posts in the series here). Each volume in the series tells the story of a disease in its historical and cultural context – the varying attitudes of society to its sufferers, the growing understanding of its causes, and the changing approaches to its treatment. In the excerpt below, Hamlin compares European and Asian cholera therapies.

When East India Company surgeons began in the eighteenth century to practice their craft among the troops and traders in South Asia, they encountered new diseases, some of which affected delicate Europeans differently from locals – 9780199546244though that was hard to gauge, since their practice among these others was occasional and unrepresentative. Within the dominant Hippocratic framework, it was assumed that place modified bodily processes; it made sense to think that local practitioners knew best how to respond. Throughout the eighteenth and well into the first half of the nineteenth century European practitioners, French as well as English, would seek local knowledge of cures. They found multiple communities of healers, Muslim and Hindu, familiar with a disease that was most commonly known in Arabic as haiza, or as mordesheen in Mahrattan. (The latter term evolved into mort du chien, though it had nothing to do with dying dogs, and even into Merde chi – it certainly did have to do with merde.) In many cases, their techniques, and the principles that apparently underlay them, were similar to European therapies for cholera morbus. Calomel, the “Sampson of medicine,” that would become the mainstay of mid-nineteenth-century cholera cures (“the only remedy that can cope with that enemy of life”) was already well established in India. And hardly surprisingly. The familiar humoral framework, the uses of mercurials and other heavy metals, reflected millennia of medical syncretism, of both theory and technique, from south-eastern Europe across most of Asia, and including China, a topic that would fascinate the cadre of late-nineteenth-century German philologists.

Strategies to redress the balance of humors, stop spasms, and support recovery were also similar. Tastes and smells were more central in Indian than in European medicine, evident in the use of spices and camphor. Essential oils were also much used, and seemed strikingly effective as specifics. They would be studied in twentieth-century clinical reviews but dismissed: their effectiveness seemed impossible to square with a bacteriological paradigm. External treatments to restore heat and ease spasms were also prominent. Mainly these were warm baths and friction, but they also included cauterizing the callused heel and ligating the limbs. That therapeutic theme would continue to be expressed in the issuing of flannel cholera belts to British Indian army. To promote recovery, Indian healers gave acidic drinks and rice gruel (now an important adjunct to oral rehydration).

Those relating south Asian cholera therapies did sometimes revel in the exotic. R.H. Scoutetten passed on a story from the earlier nineteenth-century French surgeon Gravier of the cure of a cholera sufferer in Pondicherry. A paste of lemon juice, alum, and iron oxide was rubbed over the man’s eyes.

The pain it produced vexed and enraged the sick man, and he attempted to strike those around him; the vomitings became more frequent, his attendants fled to avoid his blows; he pursued them; passing by a reservoir of water, which served for the purposes of the garden, he plunged into it and drank with avidity for several moments. They surrounded him, but he remained tranquil in the water. The enormous quantity of liquid he drank, was followed by fainting. He was then removed from the reservoir and put to bed; he slept for eleven hours. When he awoke, the vomitings and dejections had ceased, but he was blind. This fact is known by all the inhabitants of Pondicherry.

Yet Scoutetten was not broadcasting the oddities of the east, but urging the need for rehydration; he noted that Gravier, his source, had “learned from an Indian doctor, named Rassendren, a very sensible man, that individuals who drank fresh water, recovered.” Respect of indigenous healing was such that, in setting up a training program for Indian practitioner in the 1820s, the Bengal administrators developed a curriculum based on both ancient Sanskrit texts and European authors and techniques.

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