Military health services in colonial contexts during the long 19th century

On February 6, 2015, a group of scholars from France, Switzerland, Germany and Brazil met at the Château de Vincennes (the seat of the French military archives)  to discuss the role of military physicians in European colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, the Mediterranean and South-East Asia, as well as the production and circulation of medical knowledge about tropical diseases during the long 19th century. The occasion for this meeting was provided by the workshop "Santé militaire, santé coloniale. Guerres, maladies et empires au long XIXe siècle", which was organised with the support of the Service Historique de la Défense and the Centre d'histoire de Sciences Po.

Conference program  >>

Conference report >>

The results of this workshop have been published in a special issue of the French journal "Histoire, médecine et santé"



During the wars of the early modern age, deaths by disease tended to prevail over deaths in combat. This trend was particularly pronounced in the case of European troops operating in extra-European ecological contexts. As the pioneering works by Philip D. Curtin have shown, on this behalf the nineteenth century was a period of radical change: on the one hand, European empires expanded to Africa and Asia, on the other medical innovation transformed the epidemiological relation between Europe and the rest of the world, resulting in a clear decrease of mortality among European migrants moving to extra-European territories. In this context, the emergence of “tropical medicine” as a scientific field, the development of colonial projects and the reinforcement of military health services were deeply interconnected processes. Medical knowledge constituted a crucial resource for European powers: not only to provide for the health of their troops but also to create favourable conditions for an increasing number of settlers, entrepreneurs and civil servants. Later also improving the health of the native populations became a goal of colonial administrators, who perceived demographic growth as a crucial factor for enhancing the economic profitability of the colonies. Medicine, hygiene and (a certain) Western bodily discipline were celebrated as elements of the civilizing mission and sometimes employed as tools of social disciplining. However, it would be simplistic to interpret the history of colonial health as a unilateral transfer from European metropoles to colonized territories. The knowledge involved in the making of colonial medicine was not exclusively produced in the laboratories of tropical institutes and European hospitals: to a significant extent it was generated through social interactions in the colonies. Military doctors had limited infrastructural, pharmaceutical and human resources and often they had to cope with unknown diseases whose aetiology was still an unsolved question. Thus, inter-imperial cooperation, reciprocal transfers between European and non-European actors as well as the (mostly fragmentary but sill significant) appropriation of “native” therapies played a central role in the construction of colonial medicine.