Report on History of Medicine Southeast Asia (HOMSEA) 7th Conference
Appeared in the newsletter of the American Association of the History of Medicine, Issue 116 (Feb 2018), 18-19.
Access to medicine, as an expert on women’s health in Laos noted, remains one of the most challenging roadblocks in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s pursuit of its 2025 Sustainable Development Goals. And history, lamented a Lao college student, is one of the most interesting subjects, but with a scarcity of academic interest in her country. Regrettably, the history of medicine in Southeast Asia can seem almost as understudied in the region as it is neglected in the Euro-American academy.
It was an encouraging sign, then, to see Lao scholars beginning to write their own history of medicine at the seventh meeting of the History of Medicine in Southeast Asia (HOMSEA) conference, which took place in Vientiane over three days this January, in “Visit Laos” year, according to official sources. Organized by Laurence Monnais and others, HOMSEA offered an impressive diversity of subjects and approaches: historians and anthropologists from Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere explored the development of “leper” colonies and pandemic responses; officials and medical practitioners from Lao PDR connected historical issues to contemporary concerns about hospital care; and scholars from British, American, and Australian universities brought their own perspectives and concerns.
Africanists and medical anthropologists joined the fray, generating wonderful moments of transdisciplinarity in action: Nancy Rose Hunt explored the possibility of anthropologically studying disease through the colonial archive with an emphasis on the “vernacular,” while Celia Lowe’s ethnography of the H5N1 pandemic brought a critical eye to an Indonesian Minister of Health’s comments on viral sovereignty. Céline Corderey and Elizabeth Elliott drew on fieldwork in Southeast Asia to look at different cosmologies of health and religion in Myanmar and rural Laos, respectively.
The significance of animals for medicine (veterinary and otherwise) was on clear display: Arleigh Ross Dela Cruz explored the unique challenges of veterinary vaccinations campaigns in the presence of the lovable Philippines Carabao, while C. Michele Thompson showed the challenges of vaccination in the absence of cows.
Many papers also dealt with one of the seeming constants of history in Southeast Asia: immigration and movement. Por Heong Hong argued that so-called “decrepit houses” in Colonial Malaya were often ways of controlling aged immigrant workers, while Ravando Lie explored the paradoxical ways that Chinese minority populations in Java used independent hospitals to build a space for themselves inside an often hostile society.
The cross-pollination of topic, style, and focus, as well as a warm and collegial environment that encouraged early career scholars to connect with more established professors, generated a great deal of provocative discussion among the nearly seventy conference participants. Brad Bolman’s exploration of “salvage biochemistry” in Metformin’s mixed Filipino-Moroccan origins was taken up in a discussion of colonial medical travel boxes by Nandina Bhattacharya to think critically about “salvage biomedicine” on the Indian subcontinent.
We hope that eagerly anticipated future meetings—the next likely in 2020, though an interim HOMSEA meeting will be held together with the Asian Society of the History of Medicine (ASHM), in Jakarta, Indonesia, June 27-29, 2018—will fill some of the gaps at HOMSEA 7. Although Jialin Christina Wu’s paper on “koro,” the shrinking-penis syndrome which struck Singapore in epidemic form in 1967 before televised pork-eating by medical professionals calmed the public, and Robert Aldrich’s analysis of the “madness” of Vietnamese emperor Thanh Thai offered tantalizing glimpses, much work remains to be done on mental health issues in Southeast Asia. Missing, too, were detailed analyses of the history of surgery and hospital care throughout the region, although Jenna Grant’s ethnographic report from Cambodia on the development of friendship hospitals and orphan machines revealed a sense of the riches.
The participation of more scholars from less affluent parts of Southeast Asia in writing the region’s history of medicine is profoundly encouraging. We believe the emergence of Southeast Asia in the history of medicine (and in the history of science as well) will continue to be intellectually vibrant, as new scholars with unique perspectives and methods study this fascinating area and the multitude of historical dilemmas it has faced and remains to overcome in the coming years.
Brad Bolman (Harvard University)
Por Heong Hong (University of Malaya)