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Preparing for the Pox: A Theory of Smallpox in Bengal and Britain

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This essay is to be conceived in two parts. The first part is an exegesis of an eighteenth-century tract on the practice of smallpox inoculation in Bengal written by a Scottish medic. Cited repeatedly in the contemporary history and anthropology of smallpox in India, it has been invariably used to highlight the technique of inoculation in eighteenth-century India. Caught in disciplinary cleaving between anthropology and history, its original import has not been addressed. The exegesis in restoring the text to its intended import, argues that it offers a theory of smallpox, and in this theory the technique of inoculation is a moment in larger therapeutics. The latter-day privileging of this moment has resulted in seeing the nineteenth-century as a standoff between variolation (smallpox inoculation) and vaccination. The exegesis, however, recasts this as a passage from a therapeutics to a pure prophylactics that caccination represents. Having restored what I think is the central concern of the essay, I then begin to ask whether the essay is actually about the manner of inoculating for the smallpox in Bengal as Holwell says it is or is it actually about its practice in Britain. It is this very restoration, when we locate the essay in 18th century Britain, that allows us, in the latter part of the essay, to to see that not only is the theoretical articulation "induced" by his audience, but also every detail of the description of the practice, which has hitherto been seen as a description determined by his experience in India, is equally induced and determined by his location in Britain. While this could lead me to argue that Holwell's essay has nothing to do with India, I suggest that what the text effects, if not represents, is a kind of translation: one that is both possible and enabled by the fact that the kind of medical theory and practice that underlies disease and its cure is similar - not identical - in India and Britain.


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