Cover of The Bubonic Plague and how to prevent it pamphlet

Socio-Cultural Responses within India during Times of Pandemic Disease

John Mathew, PhD will speak on Thursday, October 27, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Mathew is Associate Professor of History of Science, Humanities & Social Sciences & Sciences, Krea University, Sri City, Andhra Pradesh, India. Circulating Now interviewed him about his research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

An informal portrait of a man in glasses.John Mathew: My name is John Mathew, and I hail from the southern Indian state of Kerala. Born in Kottayam in central Kerala, I call Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum, the capital of the state, my permanent home. I currently live and teach at Krea University, Sri City, in another southern Indian state, Andhra Pradesh, where I am the Chair of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and where, as an Associate Professor, I lead courses in the Biological Sciences, Environmental Studies, and History, apart from Core and Skills courses in the first year foundational programme.

I was reared in Iraq, Jordan, and Libya, my father being associated with universities in all these countries as a geneticist, before completing middle and high school in the Nilgiris district of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, also in the south. After completing my Bachelor’s, Master’s and MPhil in Zoology in the Madras Christian College, Chennai/Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu, I moved to the United States, where I completed a PhD in Ecological Sciences at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, and another doctorate in the History of Science at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, completing another Master’s in the last named university as well, in Medical Anthropology. I was also a visiting graduate student at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (on a Chateaubriand Fellowship from the Government of France) and at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine in London (on a Harvard Sheldon Fellowship). I have taught at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts in Boston, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune/Poona, Maharashtra, before moving to my current position as Associate Professor at Krea.

My work focuses on the making of zoological natural history in India under the British and the French, as well as the study of pandemic disease in Eurocolonial India, with particular interest in the Plague and the Great Influenza/Spanish Flu. My workday, in recent times has been largely given over to teaching and administrative responsibilities, with a fair sprinkling of research across a series of projects including both areas mentioned above, with extensions to areas involving scientific art and literary communication.

CN: In your NLM History Talk, “Socio-Cultural Responses within India during Times of Pandemic Disease” you explore the cultural memory of pandemics. Would you explain some of the ways these memories are expressed and how you study them?

JM: My talk focuses on the manner in which people responded to pandemics in India in a roughly century-long period between 1815 and 1942. These include outbreaks of Cholera, the Plague, and the Great Influenza, although other diseases will be included in the discussion, including Smallpox. In this talk, I explore the underappreciated ways in which Indian folk-beliefs, myths, superstitions, related stories (witnessed and fictional) and local traditions have combined to inform the experience of epidemic and pandemic diseases. Intriguingly, the Plague in Bombay of 1896 garnered considerable press, while the Great Influenza (Spanish Flu), despite accounting for over 12 million deaths in India alone (and possibly up to 20 million), was largely devoid of such intimate details. I have spent time in particular examining the Maharashtra State Archives for records relating to Influenza at the time and these have typically involved top-down approaches including, but not restricted to, medical reports and governmental orders.

CN: What have you found about how the people of India have viewed pandemics, both past and recent?

JM: A key element here is that the response was and is not homogeneous across the country. What happens, say in Bengal in the north-east of the country, is not necessarily replicated in the south, in places like Tamil Nadu or Kerala.  There are a number of deities associated with some diseases, but not others; for instance, Cholera and Diarrhoea make the cut, but apparently not Influenza. What is to be emphasised is that the role of superstition is not necessarily the province of the whole country, but may be found scattered, with some manifestations shared across regions, and others more restricted.

CN: You’ve done some of your research in the National Library of Medicine collections, was there a particular document you found helpful or interesting?

JM: In general, access to the PubMed holdings enabled recourse to the Indian Medical Gazette (from 1866 to 1955), which proved to be of great benefit.

From the Prints and Photographs collection, the image of Shitala Devi, the goddess of Smallpox, was particularly arresting.

Statue of a woman sitting sidesaddle on a horse; she is holding a small pot under her left arm, and a sheaf of plant material (fennel?) in her right hand.
So rooted was Smallpox in the everyday life of India that the disease has its own goddess, Shitala Mata.
Courtesy World Health Organization
National Library of Medicine #101437248

Also of note, is this pamphlet rendered in a regional language (Urdu), in addition to English, for the prevention of plague in Lahore (then in British India), printed in 1897, at the height of the Bombay Plague.

the cover of the pamphlet
Published in Urdu and English, the pamphlet… was part of an effort to educate the public about the nature of the disease, its symptoms and mode of infection, history, and methods of containment. Germ theory was then very new. Author H. Calvert, “Officiating Deputy Commissioner,” took particular pains to explain that the plague is not caused by the “Fates” or “gods…angry and…hurling dire calamities on earth.”
National Library of Medicine # 101214745

In addition, the History of Medicine collections at the National Library of Medicine, specifically, introduced my collaborators and me to the works of anthropologists like Helen Lambert and Fabrizio M. Ferrari, which were particularly relevant to the concerned topic.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the history of medicine? What inspires you in your work?

JM: During my doctoral sojourn in the History of Science, I was invited to teach a course on the history of disease for a summer programme called the Centre for Talented Youth (CTY) run by Johns Hopkins University for high school students at St Mary’s College in Maryland. I had taken the course ‘What is a Disease’ taught by Professor Charles Rosenberg and Professor Arthur Kleinman at Harvard, but being able to teach the subject proved to be an eye-opener. I would later teach courses on Epidemiology and Pharmacology at the Princeton campus and Roger Williams campus centre for CTY in New Jersey and Rhode Island respectively. My work on zoological natural history also veered towards the study of vector biology and my time at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine in London afforded me unparalleled opportunities to develop my interest in the history of colonial medicine.

It was my return to India, however, that enabled several trips to the Maharashtra State Archives in Bombay, delving into records on the Great Influenza, which has proved to be a source of lasting research interest. At Krea University, I have also conducted an internship relating to the two waves of COVID-19 in India, where my research on Influenza has enabled considerable scope for comparison between the two pandemic outbreaks. I have also overseen two capstone theses, one dealing with Cholera and Malaria in colonial India, the other more contemporary and taking for its remit outbreaks of Dengue in Kerala.

John Mathews’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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