The Names We Use to Describe Our Diseases – A Story From Colonial India

The Names We Use to Describe Our Diseases – A Story From Colonial India

In the autumn of 1817, a mysterious intestinal disease that had been endemic to the rural Ganges delta arrived in Calcutta, then the East India Company’s capital and a major centre for inter-Asian trade. The malady was associated with a variety of interconnected symptoms, among them lethargy, diarrhoea, vomiting, chills and abdominal pain. It came to be known as a ‘cholera’, one of several present on the Indian subcontinent, because it resembled a host of other diseases that caused those affected to forcefully expel fluids from their bodies. As the contagion spread further afield – to British outposts in Burma, Sri Lanka and western India – colonial officials started to differentiate it from the ‘native cholera’ and the ‘summer cholera’, both of which were thought to be milder variants of the same disease. In 1819, James Jameson, the secretary to the medical board of the East India Company, wrote that the ‘disorder, as it lately visited India, was new in this alone” in the fact that, ‘for the first time, [it] assumed the Epidemical form’. Indeed, several medical experts contended that this was only a more virulent strain of a well-known ailment – one identified by the ancient Greeks, among others – rather than an entirely new disease. But as time wore on, the illness spread across the Middle East and the Indian Ocean; the severity of the outbreak in Bengal also increased and the death toll in South Asia rose to six figures. Eventually, prominent colonial administrators concluded that they were dealing with an unfamiliar beast. This ...
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