Sharmin Chowdhury explains how her Royal Society Lisa Jardine Grant has aided her research into the historical interplay of public health, culture and politics in Bengal.

Letter from the Lister Institute to the Royal Society, 13 January 1905 (detail)

My Royal Society Lisa Jardine Grant has been a great help in my doctoral research project, which investigates the interplay of public health, culture and politics in the history of mass gatherings in Bengal.

During the colonial era, fairs in Bengal (now Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) acted both as disease transmission hubs and as health education platforms. My research looks at how these events shaped public health and governance, shedding light on the complex relationship between mass gatherings, scientific expertise and health policy.

My analysis of correspondence and official debates has revealed how the British colonial government took a nuanced approach to formulating public health and sanitation policies at local fairs. Given the religious significance of these fairs, attempts to regulate them risked provoking popular outrage. Consequently, a cautious policy was adopted, focusing on sanitary management at fairgrounds without interfering with rituals.

The political context in Bengal, characterised by anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments, added another layer of complexity. Strong opposition to foreign intervention in indigenous activities at fairs was evident. In response, the British colonial government broadened disease control and sanitation efforts, working alongside volunteers, missionaries and philanthropic associations. This approach aimed to integrate health and sanitary activities into local life, framing these efforts as integral components of broader health and welfare movements in Bengal.

My Lisa Jardine Grant has allowed me to explore materials housed in various UK archives and libraries, including the British Library, the Wellcome Collection, the National Library of Scotland, and the universities of Cambridge and Leeds. The Royal Society archives, in particular, provided a wealth of insight into epidemic diseases and public health, showing how a dynamic partnership emerged between the British Indian government and the Society.

I found letters from the early twentieth century dealing with collaborative efforts to address the challenges of epidemic prevention. Here, the Royal Society served as a source of scientific knowledge crucial for determining strategies to curb the spread of diseases. This collaboration contributed to shaping the British colonial government's understanding and management of health issues at fairs.

One notable instance of this collaboration can be seen in the investigation of a plague epidemic in colonial Bengal. Beginning in 1904, letters exchanged between the government of India and the Royal Society led to the formation of a scientific advisory committee involving the Society, the Lister Institute and the Secretary of State for India. This committee embodied a joint commitment to understanding and mitigating the impact of the plague, showcasing how the Royal Society's expertise was harnessed for the greater good:

 Letter discussing plague investigation, 26 September 1904Letter discussing plague investigation, 26 September 1904 (CD/59/2)

Letter from the India Office to the Royal Society, 18 October 1904Letter from Horace Walpole of the India Office to the Joint Secretaries of the Royal Society, 18 October 1904 (CD/59/1)

Letter from the Lister Institute to the Royal Society, 13 January 1905Letter from the Lister Institute to the Royal Society, 13 January 1905 (CD/59/9)

A few years later, in 1913, the Royal Society took a proactive stance in safeguarding India from the threat of yellow fever. Participating in an inquiry, the Society proposed an organised investigation into the causes and prevention of this viral disease. This collaborative effort between scientific minds and government aimed to formulate effective preventive measures, demonstrating the practical application of scientific knowledge.

'The Protection of India from Yellow Fever' by Major S P James, 1913'The Protection of India from Yellow Fever' by Major S P James, 1913 (CD/7/4)

Beyond tackling infectious diseases, the Royal Society aided the British Indian government in child nutrition and health development during colonial times, helping to shape policies and practices. The introduction of specialised health fairs from the 1920s onwards, emphasising child health education, played a pivotal role in disseminating this knowledge to the broader population in Bengal, including women.

In conclusion, my project attempts to explore how public health, cultural dynamics and political realities converged during the colonial period in Bengal's fairs. I am discovering how the Royal Society's significant role in shaping health policies underscored the intricate relationship between scientific expertise and governance. I hope that unravelling these historical threads will help to shed light on a pivotal chapter in the health saga of colonial India.


  • Sharmin Chowdhury

    Sharmin Chowdhury

    Sharmin Chowdhury, a doctoral candidate at the University of York, is exploring the nexus of public health, culture and politics in colonial Bengal. Her research delves into how these elements influenced one another during the colonial period, covering present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal. The study specifically investigates the shaping of health, culture and politics within the overarching context of colonialism.