When it first arrived, ‘Western medicine’ was simply another addition to the giant melting pot of India’s vibrant medical traditions, including vaidyas, hakims and adivasi healers. For a long time, the medical ideas that settling Europeans had brought with them since the 1500s mixed and coexisted with their Indian counterparts. For example, every ship from England or Portugal would have at least one medical practitioner on board, and many of the medical men who stayed behind in India found jobs in the courts of Indian kings. And here, they often interacted with the hakims and vaidyas already in employment, and exchanged ideas with them.
By the early 1800s, however, India’s political and social landscape had changed in leaps and bounds. The East India Company, a private company based in London, had taken charge in Bengal and neighbouring areas, and was on the cusp of total domination. Arriving British officials were now being conditioned to regard Indian cultures and traditions as inferior to European ones and in need of improvement.
Such ideas were prominently expressed in books which dictated the beliefs and attitudes of young British officers who set sail to India. One such, for example, was James Mills’s hugely popular but just as flawed The History of British India (1817).
It was in this contemptuous climate that the East India Company first established the Native Medical Institution (NMI) in 1822 in Kolkata, and then abolished it 13 years later to make way for the Medical College, Bengal, in 1835. The tradition of medical education that these institutions established later expanded to encompass all of South Asia and continues to this day in every allopathic medical college in the region.
While medical training was an area of discussion in official colonial circles for some time, the more immediate cause that led to the NMI’s foundation was the company military’s urgent need for assistant medical personnel. With the number of British troops rapidly increasing, and with troops spreading to remote parts of the country, the company struggled to furnish qualified medical personnel to its army.
Though European personnel were preferred, it was logistically and financially difficult to employ so many Europeans in the medical service. The NMI was expected to remedy this and provide a regular supply of appropriately qualified assistant ‘native doctors’.
At the NMI, students were taught both European and Indian systems of medicine, in English and Indian languages. As David Arnold has contended, this outward harmony represented less a respect for Indian medical traditions and more a well-thought-out strategy to ultimately make European medical ideas palatable for Indians.
This was also a time when anatomical knowledge gained through dissection of dead bodies was considered the pinnacle of European medical achievement. British educationists at the NMI prided themselves in making this knowledge available for Indians in the latter’s own languages, and were less enthusiastic about Ayurvedic and Unani lessons. Nevertheless, since it was considered unlikely that Indian students would attend a medical institution where only European theories were taught, the NMI project went ahead.
But soon, British politics came to be dominated by officers who considered such a ‘cautious’ approach unnecessary. They championed a more direct assertion of what they considered British and Western superiority. Besides, the Company began to express a lack of confidence in the practical utility of the project, criticising the quality of education at the NMI.
William Bentinck, the governor-general, constituted a committee to look into the NMI and to offer recommendations about medical instruction in Bengal. The committee strongly criticised the project and recommended the NMI be replaced with a new institution that would teach medicine like it was taught in European medical colleges, and wholly in English.
And so it was that in 1835, on the advice of this committee, the NMI was abolished and in its place came the Medical College, Bengal, a.k.a. the Calcutta Medical College (CMC).
One of the most striking developments in the first year of the CMC was human dissection by Indian students. While there is evidence of some sort of dissection in early Ayurvedic texts, the handling of dead bodies had over time become strongly associated with caste-related prejudices. Training in neither of the two major medical traditions (Ayurveda and Unani) incorporated comprehensive anatomical instructions. For British doctors, on the other hand, anatomy had become an indispensable part of medical training by the early 1800s. In fact, one of the main objections against the NMI was its lack of focus on practical anatomy.
At the CMC, however, things were going to be different. Mountford Joseph Bramley, the college’s principal, began with theoretical anatomical lessons for a few months before taking his Indian students into the dissecting room. This first dissection, frequently celebrated as the first ever human dissection by Indians in the modern period, took place in October 1836. It was led by Madhusudan Gupta, who previously was an Ayurveda teacher at the NMI. This event was extensively publicised in Britain as an achievement of Western ‘superiority’, and a few years later a portrait of Gupta was put up in the CMC, where it still hangs.
More importantly, the CMC’s establishment in 1835 resulted in the British colonial government explicitly and officially recognising only ‘Western medicine’ for all administrative and bureaucratic affairs. Of course, these developments did not lead to the demise of the Indian systems of medicine, as some colonial officers expected then. But they did cause a gradual rise of biomedical dominance that continued into post-independence India through the recommendations of the Bhore committee report in 1946.
Finally, the CMC’s early years also laid the foundation for biomedical professionalisation in India. Doctors graduating from the college began considering their community of practitioners to be different from the existing practitioners of the Indian systems of medicine. No wonder that the earliest beginnings of today’s Indian Medical Association lie in Kolkata: it originated in the ‘All-India Medical Association’ formed at a 1928 conference in the city, heavily attended by CMC graduates.
This essay was first published in ‘Reflections on Medical Humanities’ (2019), an annual publication from the Dr Manu VL Kothari Chair of Medical Humanities at the Division of Medical Humanities, Seth GS Medical College, and KEM Hospital, Mumbai.
Kiran Kumbhar is currently studying the history of science at Harvard University, focusing on the history of medicine in modern India. He is also a physician and a health policy graduate.