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Josette Duncan

As a nineteenth-century social historian of medicine, my research specialises in colonial history of medicine, history of isolation, quarantine as well as regulationism, institutionalisation, colonial public health and medical charities.

My doctoral thesis is entitled "Health, Dominion and the Mediterranean: Colonial Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Malta, Cyprus and the Ionian Islands"

About My Research:

This study incorporates three main case studies with similar geo-strategic positions in the Mediterranean and comparable general political history. These islands were all under British rule at some time during the 19th century. I propose that charities in these islands constitute important case studies, shedding light on the cultural and social discourse between colonizers and colonized in hitherto unexplored contexts. The analysis of the medical and health care systems on these islands offers a new perspective on 19th century British colonialism and its relation to health care. This study will deal with various issues including diverse cultures and three main monotheistic religions in the region. It will be informed by research in other colonial contexts but will then address specifically the Mediterranean historical scene and the policies of the British Colonial office in these parts of the British Empire.

In order to understand the cultural background of these islands, one needs a firm grasp of the history of the Mediterranean Sea and its surrounding land. Essentially this area is the melting pot of East-West and North-South differences. It is the Sea which saw the birth of Hellenism which later was vital in the colonial histories of Cyprus and the Ionian Islands. Apart from similarities, these three case studies have many distinct differences. One of these differences is the geo-strategic importance of each island within the British Empire. This would affect the importance to health and medical care given to each island in relation to the stronghold and the amount of garrison stationed. These differences would lead the colonial authorities to attach according importance to civil health care. Other questions and differences such as ethnicity and religion will help generating important hypothesis and inferences on each island. Through the study of various charitable institutions, naval and military hospitals, public health, hospital provisions, quarantine measures, isolation of lepers and prostitutes and the study of the climate and the constitution, I aim to understand the relationship between medicine, the colonial civilizing mission and the transmission of information and ideologies between the metropolis and periphery.

Supervisor: Prof. Hilary Marland

Department: History (Centre for History of Medicine)


STEPS (Malta)Link opens in a new window

CHM Strategic Award Travel Fund

Postgraduate Research Fund

Royal Historical Society Research Abroad Funding

Callum MacDonald Memorial Bursary

Research Interests

Charity and Alms giving: the centuries old dilemma whether to help the poor and give charity or whethernaval hospital
charity encourages mendicancy and loitering from those able but lazy poor. Private and Church charities were founded to help alleviate the suffering of many poor families, yet some still believed that these only encouraged unemployment and vagrancy. The themes of deserving and undeserving poor runs throughout the study of charitable institutions during the 19th century.

Civil, private and church charities: In Malta, numerous private and church charities were developing during the reign of the Knights of the Order of St. John. Although not directly administered by the Knights, they were approved of and sheltered. In some cases private charities with financial difficulties were aided by the Order's coffers. In the 19th century, the British Colonial Government amalgamated all the private and church charities in existence at the time under the Civil Charitable Institutions of Malta. This remained in existence until the 20th century when the Maltese Government renamed it as the Medical Department which continued to incorporate in it the most important medical and sheltering institutions. Although these charities changed their administrative characteristics under British rule, the paternalistic attitude of the populace towards these services did not change. It was considered the right of the poor and the Maltese citizens (especially the taxpayer) to be given hospital care and shelter in asylums.

Hospitals and Asylums Architecture: Various buildings were adapted, and in rare occasions built, to serve the purpose of medical institutions or asylums in Malta. The main architectural hospital markers can be seen in these buildings. Until the 19th century, most buildings were of the mansion type or built around closed courtyards which serviced the needs of the whole buildings. During British rule, only two civil hospitals were built and both were differing forms of the pavilion systems so much propagated at the time by medical champions like Florence Nightingale and Joseph Lister. The need for better buildings to house these medical institutions was felt throughout the 19th century. Hospitals and asylums were often cramped and ill suited for patients due to raising damp, structural damages, lack or defective drainage systems and periodic infestations due to lack of cleanliness.

Institutionalization: It is often debated whether institutions were oppressive and markers of an inflexibleinfermeria
social structure. As common examples of such institutions, prisons, hospitals, asylums and mental institutions are mentioned. In this research, the Foucauldian views do not match the data and documentation found in archives. The negative views of such institutions and what they must have meant for the poor or the sick are only partially shown throughout this research. This study analyses the good and
bad reputations of Maltese civil charities and gives numerous examples where sick or poor patients refused to be admitted into these institutions. On the other hand the applications to be admitted into these institutions were rising year after year shedding some light on the economic and social situation of the lower strata of Maltese society in the 19th century.

District Medical Officers (or Parish Doctors): The charitable system under the Knights' rule during the 17th and 18th centuries also included regional alms giving around the various villages and parishes. Under the British rule, this system of poor relief was further evolved and greater care was given to who was eligible for relief or not. In Malta, the system of parish doctors was also introduced and District Medical Officers were posted in the 13 districts around Malta and the sister island Gozo. These medical doctors
filtered most of the medical cases and were obliged to send to the general hospital of Floriana only those in need of dire and immediate attention. Others who needed shelter and asylum were brought to the attention of Government's officials and put in the list under the respective institution as their needs entailed.

Island Colonies – most of my research was focused on the charities in the island of Malta during the 19th century. Malta was under the direct rule of Britain and formed part of the extensive British Empire. In Island colonies like Cyprus, Gibraltar and Malta under British rule, elderly, poor and those in need of care used a combination of resources, social networks and exploitation of government sponsored institutions in
order to survive. A strong factor amongst these societies is the great amount of negotiation done with various institutions varying on the patients' social background, health status, rural or urban location and household composition.


Academic Publications

[Submitted] '"Two words...Good Sanitation": Colonial Medical Responses to the Cholera Epidemics of 1865 and 1888 in Malta' in Alex Brown, Andy Burn and Rob Doherty (eds.), Coping with Crisis: Re-Evaluating the Role of Crises in Economic and Social History (Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer, 2015).

Conference Papers

October 2013, contribution in 'Cyprus Hub of the Mediterranean: the island from antiquity to the present day', IAS speculative lunch organised by Dr. Ersin Hussein and Professor Michael Scott.

"Ordered south”: Medical travellers in Southern Mediterranean', Risk and Disaster in Medicine and Health, SSHM International Conference, Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública, Lisbon, 4-7th September 2013.

'Isolation and exclusion: quarantine in the British Mediterranean Islands during the nineteenth century', Coping with Crises Re-evaluating the role of crises in economic and social history, Collingwood College, Durham, 26-28th July 2013.

'Prostitution and Isolation: - the Contagious Diseases Acts in the Mediterranean British Colonies', The British Society for the History of Science postgraduate conference, University of Warwick, 4th-6th January 2012.


Core Module Making History 2014-2015 (first year undergraduate students)

Core Module Making History 2012-2013 (first year undergraduate students)


Treasurer for the Retrospectives Postgraduate JournalLink opens in a new window 2012-2013


Member of the Committee for the Postgraduate Conference 2011-2012

Organiser of the Monash-Warwick Collaboration Webinar series 2012-2013

Skills development

Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy 2014

Post Graduate Award Introduction to Academic and Professional Practice 2012-2013


Best Postgraduate Student Who Teaches - STARS of Warwick Award

Curriculum Vitae


PhD in History of Medicine University of Warwick: 2010-2014

MA (Research) in History University of Malta: 2004-2008

BA (Hons) University of Malta: 2001-2004


Research Assistant (EU funded project) with Heritage MaltaLink opens in a new window: 2006-2009


Coventry Canal Footbridge