Healing Hands: Sickness, Healthcare, and Remedies from the Colonial Period to Today – Interview with Dorit Brixius and Nayeli Urquiza

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the Explorative Workshop “Healing Hands: Sickness, Healthcare, and Remedies from the Colonial Period to Today”, which will take place on 12–13 September 2019 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. We have been talking to the conveners. Dorit Brixius is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Paris. Nayeli Urquiza is a Research Associate for the Wellcome Trust project ‘Law, knowledges and the making of ‘modern healthcare’ at the University of Kent.

How did you come up with the idea to study healing practices and why do you think it is important? How did you decide to cooperate with each other?

Dorit Brixius (photo: private)

Dorit Brixius: As a historian of early modern knowledge, I have developed a strong interest in how historical actors sought to make nature yield. This includes the question of how they employed natural goods and substances in their everyday practices of food preparation and healthcare. Some years ago, I found it striking that historiography does not have much to offer on healing outside of the frameworks of European science and medicine (an important exception being Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (2017)). Yet, seeking to explore the healing practices of those who were marginalised or even erased both in European archives and in printed sources, has shown me the limits of archive-based research. I have started to think about how to employ materials and objects that could help me to answer the questions I have raised. Certainly, historians of science have argued for material practices and researching objects in the past (including Craciun/Schaffer, The Material Cultures of Enlightenment Arts and Sciences (2016) or Roberts/Schaffer/Dear, The Mindful Hand: Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialisation (2007), but these did not necessarily include healing practices. Hence, I felt stuck and it seemed to me that I lacked the necessary tools and methods. When opening up to new horizons, a friend told me about this brilliant early career scholar called Nayeli working on regulations and traditional healthcare within a Wellcome Trust-funded project at the University of Kent. This was the start of a fruitful cooperation.

Nayeli Urquiza (photo: private)

Nayeli Urquiza: When Dorit contacted me, things developed naturally given that I have always worked in international and cross-disciplinary environments: The idea for the workshop was born out of common interests such as the relevance of history in understanding the role of healing traditions today.  While my professional and academic background draws from public health, law, and human rights, I am also currently a Research Associate for the Wellcome Trust funded project based at the University of Kent, titled “Law, Medicine and the Making of Modern Healthcare.” This project, led by Professor Emilie Cloatre, directly speaks to the transnational and cross-disciplinary spirit of the Forum Transregionale Studien in so far as it explores how history underpins contemporary regulatory systems in Western Europe (France/England); West Africa (Ghana/Senegal) and the West Indian Ocean (Mauritius/La Reunion). This said, in this workshop we wish to look at those (historical) actors and medical cultures that have not been recognised as legitimate knowledge-holders in health matters, and are only marginally tolerated in contemporary healthcare systems unless they transform into biomedical analogues, or they are otherwise outright forbidden. Although contemporary discourse around alternative medicines encompasses a wide variety of practices, we decided to focus on non-European, local and indigenous populations, as well as slaves and labourers in the colonies, indigenous communities in the neo-colonial context, and diaspora communities in post-colonial rural and urban settings. We hope to understand whether and how these colonial and/or post- and neo-colonial power dynamics – expressed through different social, economic, and political institutions – continue to shape contemporary practices and laws regarding traditional health care and give a voice to those who are often unheard.

Why is a transregional approach important for the topic?

Being ill is one of the circumstances that possibly every living being experiences today and has experienced in the past. Curing illness as well as maintaining health have thus always been crucial practices in societies in different parts of the world, that is to say healing traditions have spanned across transnational boundaries and broken temporalities. Here, we are convinced that a transregional approach is probably the only way to tackle the topic in a meaningful way, where European medicine and science have been de-centralised as the endpoint of all knowledge systems. Instead of using approaches on the circulation of healing knowledge using Europe as the main market, the goal is to shed light on knowledge production for the purpose of local contexts and how these healing knowledges have been shared, circulated, appropriated or protected throughout different regions when access to public health has been limited because practitioners are not seen as legitimate knowledge producers.

What are the methodological and/or conceptual challenges for scholars who want to study healing practices?

Working across the disciplines is not necessarily easy because we have to make our methods and frameworks speak to each other, taking care and patience to explain what seems to be normal from a particular standpoint. We hope to foster the dialogue across many different disciplines, political standpoints, and histories, by bringing together medical anthropologists, historians of medicine, physicians, lawyers, socio-legal scholars, traditional healers, health and human rights activists, with the aim of exploring how remedies exist, persist and thrive in the periphery of contemporary health systems and ‘Western’ medical standardisation. Here, we seek to integrate different perspectives of (historical) actors from different parts of the world whose voices and roles in the (historical) study of healing are not foregrounded in public discourse as they are not measurable through technical indicators and standards. In that regard, we are interested in the way the ‘State’ governs and shapes modern healthcare and how the latter shapes the visibility or invisibility of transnational healing networks operating at a local level. By the same token, we hope to examine the discursive engagement of traditional medicine with biomedicine, and the ways in which people navigate between different healthcare universes and develop new avenues of rethinking the collective value of healing traditions, their (silent) histories and their tensions arising from historical and contemporary healthcare contexts. Hence, the challenges are not only related to reaching out to different actors and practitioners, but also to foregrounding the pluralism of knowledge traditions, and critically analysing how they came to be known as ‘complementary and alternative medicines’ (CAM) by exploring micro and global dynamics in both past and present.

What are the methodological and/or conceptual challenges for scholars who want to study healing practices?

Working across the disciplines is not necessarily easy because we have to make our methods and frameworks speak to each other, taking care and patience to explain what seems to be normal from a particular standpoint. We hope to foster the dialogue across many different disciplines, political standpoints, and histories, by bringing together medical anthropologists, historians of medicine, physicians, lawyers, socio-legal scholars, traditional healers, health and human rights activists, with the aim of exploring how remedies exist, persist and thrive in the periphery of contemporary health systems and ‘Western’ medical standardisation. Here, we seek to integrate different perspectives of (historical) actors from different parts of the world whose voices and roles in the (historical) study of healing are not foregrounded in public discourse as they are not measurable through technical indicators and standards. In that regard, we are interested in the way the ‘State’ governs and shapes modern healthcare and how the latter shapes the visibility or invisibility of transnational healing networks operating at a local level. By the same token, we hope to examine the discursive engagement of traditional medicine with biomedicine, and the ways in which people navigate between different healthcare universes and develop new avenues of rethinking the collective value of healing traditions, their (silent) histories and their tensions arising from historical and contemporary healthcare contexts. Hence, the challenges are not only related to reaching out to different actors and practitioners, but also to foregrounding the pluralism of knowledge traditions, and critically analysing how they came to be known as ‘complementary and alternative medicines’ (CAM) by exploring micro and global dynamics in both past and present.

What was the most surprising moment of your research?

DB: I remember working in the archives of the Parisian Jardin des Plantes (the Parisian Botanical Garden), where I was doing research for my thesis on plant knowledge in the making of eighteenth-century French Mauritius. I could not believe my eyes when I consulted the notes of French naturalists and came across many references on the names and uses of plants provided by slaves. Unfortunately, further sources are frustratingly silent about these slaves, who they were reliant on for additional knowledge of the cultivational, medicinal and everyday uses of the plants. It is a real challenge to reconstruct the plant-based usage of those who were silenced out, which is why this collaborative and cross-disciplinary project has become most precious to me.

NU: It was definitely surprising when I realised how much plants have come to the forefront of human stories. I was fascinated by how regulators, herbalists, and healers speak about plants, particularly how different affects (passion, fear, respect, etc.) transpire through their stories, as well as in political, medical and legal discourse. Following this thread has been exciting as it draws the focus to plants as unique actors that hold a particular role in the social networks of healing. By shifting the attention away from the human and turning it up-side down, plants appear as agents who act on us in fascinating ways. Cannabis is one of those plants that tells so many stories and brings out so many different passions across human history, and yet we think that it is us who are imprinting representations on them rather than these representations co-evolving with this curious weed, as noted by Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (2002). Of course, this approach is not really new but sometimes we need to translate ancient knowledge into contemporary frameworks, and it is very exciting that so many workshop participants are attuned to the world of herbs, plants and healing across different temporalities and beyond the restrictions of legal and political boundaries.

Bio Notes

Dorit Brixius is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the German Historical Institute Paris. She holds a PhD in History from the European University Institute. Following a socio-cultural approach to the history of science, her research interests include global history and the history of knowledge and healing with a special focus on France and its Indian Ocean colonies (17th and 18th century). She has recently published an article on slaves, plant knowledge and gardens in eighteenth-century Mauritius in History of Science in which she sheds new light on the relation between natural history and slavery in the French Indian Ocean colonies. In her new project, she works on medical pluralism in seventeenth-century France.

Nayeli Urquiza is a Research Associate for the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Law, Knowledges and the Making of ‘Modern Healthcare’: Regulating Traditional and Alternative Medicines in Contemporary Contexts’, based at the University of Kent. In her PhD, she critically analysed the effects of reform in sentencing for drug mules through an in-depth and multidisciplinary analysis of drug prohibition, criminal law and vulnerability. She has an extensive track record of co-authored and single-authored publications drawing on socio-legal methods and much experience working in international collaborative projects related to public health, law and human rights, funded by the Open Society Foundations.


Citation: Healing Hands: Sickness, Healthcare, and Remedies from the Colonial Period to Today – Interview with Dorit Brixius and Nayeli Urquiza, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.06.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18777.


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