Tropical Neurasthenia and Leprosy Asylums

The Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences has just posted two forthcoming articles on its website. Anna Crozier (pictured left), of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, has written on the history of tropical neurasthenia in British East Africa. In “What Was Tropical about Tropical Neurasthenia? The Utility of the Diagnosis in the Management of British East Africa,” Crozier explores the diagnosis of tropical neurasthenia in the early twentieth century. The abstract reads,

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, tropical neurasthenia was a popular diagnosis for a nervous condition experienced by Europeans in the topics. Tropical neurasthenia was not psychosis or madness, but was rather an ennui or loss of “edge” brought about by the strains of tropical life, especially the unfamiliar, hot climate. A catch-all for a wide range of symptoms, many missionaries, colonial staff, and settlers throughout Empire were repatriated because of it, although this article concentrates on Colonial Service employees working in British East Africa. While histories of tropical neurasthenia have usefully (and correctly) explained this diagnosis as an expression of the anxieties of the colonial regime, this article adds a new dimension to the historiography by arguing that tropical neurasthenia can only be properly understood as a hybrid form, dependent not only upon the peculiarities of the colonial situation, but also descended from British and American clinical understandings of neurasthenia. Moreover, once tropical neurasthenia is properly acknowledged as being typical of clinical understandings of the time, other reasons for its comparatively long endurance in the colonial situation emerge. This article shows that tropical neurasthenia remained a popular diagnosis in East Africa not only because (as historians have argued previously) it dovetailed with prevalent ideas of colonial acclimatization, but also because it was a practically useful tool in the management and regulation of colonial personnel.

Also forthcoming in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, is an article by Jo Robertson, of the Institut d’Histoire de la Medecine et de la Sante. Robertson’s article, “The Leprosy Asylum in India: 1886–1947,” discusses the intent behind the design of leprosy asylums in India. The article’s abstract reads,

Writing against a historical practice that situates the leprosy asylum exclusively within prison-like institutions, this article seeks to show the variation in leprosy asylums, the contingencies of their evolution, and the complexity of their designs, by devoting attention to the characteristics of the leprosy asylum in India from 1886 to 1947, in particular to the model agricultural colony. Drawing upon the travel narratives of Wellesley Bailey, the founder of the Mission to Lepers in India, for three separate periods in 1886, 1890–91, and 1895–96, it argues that leprosy asylums were formed in response to a complex conjunction of impulses: missionary, medical, and political. At the center of these endeavors was the provision of shelter for persons with leprosy that accorded with principles of good stewardship and took the form of judicious use of donations provided by benefactors. As the Mission to Lepers began to bring about improvements and restructuring to asylums, pleasant surroundings, shady trees, sound accommodation, and good ventilation became desirable conditions that would confer physical and psychological benefits on those living there. At the same time, the architecture of the asylum responded to economic imperatives, in addition to religious and medical aspirations, and asylums moved towards the regeneration of a labor force. Leprosy-affected people were increasingly employed in occupations that contributed to their sustenance and self-sufficiency, symbolically reincorporating the body damaged by leprosy into the economic world of productive relations

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.