Northern Centre for the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities

Pybus: "The Drug Trade in Colonial India"

Added 16 November 2011 | Duration 35 minutes 24 seconds

Dr Nandini Bhattacharya, University of Leicester

This paper will examine how Indian drug traders and importers adjusted to foreign competition and in what ways standardization of drug production and marketing were attempted in twentieth-century India. Although recent scholarship in Indian history of medicine has explored how colonialism changed institutions and praxis of medicine in India, there has been little attention on a history of the production and the delivery of drugs. This paper will attempt to provide an idea of how and what kind of drugs were sold on the Indian market in colonial India.


Urban colonial India was awash with patent and proprietary medicines, tinctures, tonics, powders and tabloids of every description. Many of these were imported from Great Britain and from the United States; but an increasing, substantial number of them also arrived from the fast-industrialising nations of Germany and Japan. These were sold by the agents of the multi-national companies who were based in India, who also traded in aerated water, compounds and galenicals that they manufactured themselves. They competed with Indian druggists, who were large-scale importers but also did extensive business with fledgling Indian firms in the early twentieth century. Therapeutic and cosmetic products of varying standards and efficacy were sold more informally directly to consumers by small merchants, itinerant traders and Ayurvedic and Hakimi practitioners as well. Although the principal consumer of drugs and therapeutic products in late colonial India was still the Indian army, therefore, there was a brisk trade in all consumer drug products, particularly in the urban areas. The vast expansion of the drugs trade in twentieth-century India and particularly intrusion of more sophisticated, better marketed, and supposedly more effective therapeutic remedies and proprietary medicines from abroad changed the framework of the medical market. These trends coincided with the trajectory of increasingly vocal and popular nationalist protests, economic nationalism and, after the First World War, the acceleration of colonial industrialism.

Dr Nandini Bhattacharya specializes in history of medicine and colonial and global history. She trained in history at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, completing an M.A. and an M.Phil. After being awarded the first Roy Porter Memorial Studentship, she completed her PhD thesis on the history of the interactions between tropical medicine, the colonial state, and colonial enclaves in India at the University College London. Since then she has worked as a researcher at the University of Warwick and then taught History of Medicine at Yale University and Urban and Colonial History at Leicester University. In 2011 she was awarded the Wellcome post-doctoral fellowship for her project on a history of the Indian pharmaceutical industry in the twentieth century.

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