Constructions of Traditional Medicine during Decolonization and the Global Cold War

Project: Research project

Project Details


"The Wisdom of the Peoples" seeks to explain the dramatic ascendency of traditional medicine within global and pan-African institutions by situating it in the wider context of decolonization, the rise of ethnoscientific research, and the global Cold War. When European, American, and Japanese empires were dismantled following the Second World War, endogenous therapeutic practices that had been so widely denigrated in the imperial period were granted a new hearing. Political independence in India in 1947 and China’s communist turn in 1949 prompted both countries to valorize Ayurvedic and Chinese medical traditions in the ensuing decades. Yet had it not been for the simultaneous efforts within dozens of newly independent African countries, Chinese and Indian leaders might have been lobbying in support of "traditional medicine" at the international level in isolation. By the nineteen-sixties, Western or biomedicine was increasingly under assault in many parts of the world for being too expensive and for ignoring the broader psychological, physical, and spiritual dimensions of human well-being. In 1965 scientists with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) encouraged it to foster pan-African research networks that could investigate African healing and pharmacopeia as valid alternatives. The OAU’s persistent effort over the next decade helps to explain why the World Health Organization (WHO) used the African expert group’s definitions of traditional medicine when it announced its program to the world in 1978. The book I envisage from this project, The Wisdom of the Peoples, will explore systematically the legal, disciplinary, political, and economic trends during the course of the twentieth century that constructed traditional medicine not just as a viable category of scientific research and policy-making, but also as an integral part of our global lexicon.
Effective start/end date7/1/156/30/22


  • National Science Foundation (SES-1456984-003)


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