“Small beginnings under favourable circumstances”: A Global Intellectual History of Florence Nightingale's Ideas on Indian Healthcare

  • Vikram Visana (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Florence Nightingale’s Indian career, transitioning from imperialist healthcare advisor to a critic of empire in league with Indian reformers, has been well-documented (Gourlay, 2003). However, the biographical approach does not show how issues of Indian land tenure reform, agricultural reform, political representation, Indian women’s rights, and Indian nursing were:

1. foundational, rather than incidental, to the debate on Indian sanitation and healthcare;

2. the common context in which Nightingale and her Indian allies bridged their intellectual horizons in an era of otherwise rigidifying racial boundaries.

Using evidence collected in India and Britain during my PhD, this paper uses an intellectual history of Nightingale’s Indian reform to place her ideas on Indian healthcare in dialogue with those of anti-colonial Indian liberalism. Thus, this is a global intellectual history of healthcare and liberalism rather than an account of global ‘networks’ which tends to offer a shallower explanation for motivation and historical change.

The primary contribution of this paper is to show that on social reform and political economy, Nightingale was not an ‘advanced liberal’ in the British party-political mould. Rather, her willingness to advocate major intervention from the state in order to nurture traditional, and arguably conservative, Indian institutions as the basis of a civil healthcare provision was more radical and ran parallel to the communitarian liberalism developing among Indian intellectuals at this time (Bayly, 2011; Visana, 2016). The latter, sought to graft ideas of ‘progress’ onto traditional Indian institutions like the village ‘panchayat’ (elected council) and even the ostensibly illiberal caste system. Thus, in marrying up her healthcare interventionism with Indian intellectuals’ ideas about political and economic liberty, Nightingale’s project was able to give more agency to Indians in their own healthcare reform than most of her British contemporaries and, indeed, than she herself had done before the 1870s.
Period13 Feb 202014 Feb 2020
Held atEuropean Association for the History of Nursing, United Kingdom
Degree of RecognitionInternational