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Medical Systems Before Biomedicine

Today, you will find evidence of multiple medical systems on every high street, and even in the smallest village shop here in the UK. From acupuncture to yoga classes and from homeopathy to hypnotism, health seekers and consumers can access treatments and therapeutic practices from around the world alongside the biomedical drugs and therapies which now dominate state-funded, mainstream medicine in Europe and North America. You may take this for granted, and see it as a natural outcome of post-war globalisation. In this class, we will explore the longer history of this medical pluralism, and the rich and fluid medical cultures which under pin it, from 'traditional' Chinese medicine to Ayurveda, Islamic medicine, and European 'alternative medicines' like homeopathy. We will also compare the (English language) historiography of global medical systems and biomedicine.

Discussion Questions:

What do histories of global medical systems reveal about the historiography of medicine?

If medical practices and beliefs are culturally distinctive, how should we understand the globalisation of medical systems?

Can any medical system be 'universal'?

How should we interpret the apparent similarities between European, Chinese and Indian medical systems in the early modern period?

Thinking about 'parts' and 'wholes' Global Medicines and (im) Patient-Consumers

Required Readings

Roberta Bivins, Alternative Medicine? A History (Oxford University Press, 2007), 'Introduction', pp. 1-40.

Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (Zone Books, 1999), 'Grasping the Language of Life', pp. 17-60.

  • Margaret Lock, and Patricia Kaufert, "Menopause, Local Biologies, and Cultures of Aging." American Journal of Human Biology 13: 4 (2001): 494-504.

Further Reading

  • Madhulika Banerjee, Power, Knowledge, Medicine: Ayurvedic Pharmaceuticals at Home and in the World. vol. 23;23.;, Orient BlackSwan, London;Hyderabad;, 2009.

Roberta Bivins, Alternative Medicine? A History (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Roberta Bivins, Acupuncture, Expertise and Cross-Cultural Medicine (Palgrave, 2000).

Judith Farquhar. A Way of Life: Things, Thought, and Action in Chinese Medicine. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020.

Murphy Halliburton, Mudpacks and Prozac : Experiencing Ayurvedic, Biomedical, and Religious Healing, Taylor & Francis Group, 2009. 

  • Hareem Khan, "Producing Ayurveda: Authenticity and Race in the Beauty and Wellness Industries." American Studies (Lawrence), vol. 61, no. 3, 2022, pp. 19-170.

Shigehisa Kuriyama, The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (Zone Books, 1999).

Jean M. Langford, Fluent Bodies: Ayurvedic Remedies for Postcolonial Imbalance. Duke University Press, Durham, 2002.

Margaret Lock, Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America (University of California Press, 1993).

Projit B. Mukharji and David Hardiman. Medical Marginality in South Asia: Situating Subaltern Therapeutics. vol. 6.;6;, Routledge, London;New York;, 2012.

Projit Bihari Mukharji. Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies, and Braided Sciences Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Projit B. Mukharji, "Akarnan: The Stethoscope and Making of Modern Ayurveda, Bengal, c. 1894–1952." Technology and Culture, vol. 60, no. 4, 2019,

Peter Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith, Medieval Islamic Medicine. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2022

Volker Scheid, Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China: Plurality and Synthesis. Edited by Barbara H. Smith, and E. R. Weintraub. Duke University Press, Durham, 2002.

Volker Scheid, "The Globalisation of Chinese Medicine." The Lancet, vol. 354, 1999, pp. SIV10-SIV10.

Kira Schmidt-Stiedenroth, Unani Medicine in the Making: Practices and Representations in 21st-Century India. vol. 1, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2020,

Paul U Unschuld, What is Medicine?: Western and Eastern Approaches to Healing. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009,

Dagmar Wujastyk, and Smith, Frederick M., eds. 2008. Modern and Global Ayurveda : Pluralism and Paradigms. Albany: State University of New York Press.