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Of English bloodhounds and indigenous medicine

21 Aug, 2013
Delegates at iCHSTM 2013

Delegates at iCHSTM 2013

Along with the sunshine, July brought another extraordinary event to the city of Manchester – the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology & Medicine (iCHSTM). Priya Joshi was there along with 1,700 other delegates from around the world.

iCHSTM is the largest and most diverse gathering in the field of History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Like an ‘Olympics’ of the field it happens just once every four years and, having stopped off in in Mexico City (2001), Beijing (2005) and Budapest (2009), it finally landed in the UK in Manchester.

The conference was bursting at its seams with symposia, in fact, so many panels and papers had been organised in the space of the week, that the programme was given out in the form of a memory stick. The scope was immense, ranging from meteorology, to cultures of engineering to practices of medicine throughout history. This year’s theme was ‘Knowledge at work’, with most papers focusing on the ways in which the research engaged with its wider context, how it is/was practiced and disseminated, and how it affected the public.

One paper that lodged in my mind was Neil Pemberton’s (University of Manchester), which featured in a symposium based on the history of forensics, a far cry from the glamour of CSI. He explored the nature of human-animal relationships within this revolutionary practice, with specific attention to the development of the English bloodhound as an elite crime detective in the late 19th-early 20th century. The English bloodhound, Pemberton told us, had been bred and trained, unlike its savage cousin, the Cuban bloodhound – used to ravage escaped slaves. The English bloodhound had developed an air of nobility, its olfactory acuteness, made more accurate when coupled with its drool and floppy ears  – made it a perfect partner in crime-stopping. Its blood-thirsty nature did however lead onto debates of morality and social responsibility and, ironically, the bloodhound was sometimes likened to Jack the Ripper himself.

On a completely different note, Sreekumar Nellickappilly from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras examined the encounter between indigenous and modern medical systems in colonial India. Before European systems were enforced, the practice of medicine in India was more of an art form, than a science. It was grounded in what would now be called the phenomenology and hermeneutics of medicine, enveloping the lived experience of the patients – contrasting the rather detached and intensely scientific diagnoses of today. Western physicians often looked down on indigenous modes of understanding and healing the body, believing it to be inferior to their own ‘scientifically-proven’ theories. Holistic practices, such as Ayurveda spanned social life in its entirety; so when the colonial power exerted its influence, it affected culture, society and politics, facilitating European dominance.

This was just a small taste of what went on at the conference. My experience of ‘Knowledge at work’ at iCHSTM, specifically participating in pioneering discussions and being in a space where academics, passionate about their research, seek to enrich their own and others’ work – has been extraordinary. The 25th Congress (2017) will be held in Rio de Janeiro, so until then – Viva saúde!

Priya Joshi

Priya Joshi is a summer intern at the Wellcome Trust.

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