In the spirit of encouraging the study of the history of medicine in Southeast Asia, Prof. Rethy Kieth Chhem, an academic physician and practicing radiologist who was simultaneously pursuing a doctoral degree in history (on the history of medicine in ancient Angkor), developed the idea of organising a conference in the region. No major international scholarly event on the topic had been held since a conference in 1983 at the Australia’s National University.
Prof. Chhem shared his idea with Prof. Harold J. Cook and Dr. Laurence Monnais. Together we agreed on the goal of the conference: to promote research in all aspects of the history of medicine and health in Southeast Asia so as to foster exchanges among medical historians working on and in the region, by including scholars and medical students among the participants and by holding the event locally.
As a trustee of the Center for Khmer Studies based in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Rethy Chhem readily obtained logistic support for the organisation of the 1st International Conference on the History of Medicine in Southeast Asia (HOMSEA), eventually held in January 2006 at Wat Damnak, an old monastery in the heart of Siem Reap, close to the Angkor archaeological park site.
Papers were presented by twenty-three scholars from around the world, and many others, including a large number of Cambodian medical students, attended. It was a first opportunity for many scholars, especially younger and local scholars, to meet and discuss the links between their research interests. This conference was also a unique opportunity to gauge the interest of Southeast Asian and international scholars in the history of medicine and their response to the challenge of tackling the numerous histories of medicine in the region. Participants came to understand the wealth of themes and the numerous methodological and historiographical approaches to explore and test. By the end of the conference, we as organisers were persuaded that the field was ripe for development. Indeed, the success of the first HOMSEA conference called for the organisation of more conferences; we decided to hold a gathering in the region every other year.
HOMSEA has met at the following locations:
- Siem Riep, Cambodia, founding meeting, 2006
- Penang, Malaysia, 2008
- Singapore, 2010 (in association with the International Association of Historians of Asia)
- Solo, Indonesia, 2012 (in association with the International Association of Historians of Asia)
- Manila, the Philippines, 2014
- Siem Riep, Cambodia, 2016 (marking 10 years of HOMSEA)
- Vientiane, Laos, 2018
- Jakarta, Indonesia, June 2018 (in association with the Asian Society of the History of Medicine)