Nations Must be Defended: Public Health, Enmity, and Immunity in Katherine Mayo’s Mother India

Article Summary by Sandhya Shetty

The article published in Medical Humanities (special issue on Global Health) is one harvest of my longstanding engagement with Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), a uniquely ill-natured attempt to turn the tide of interwar British imperial history. The article draws materials from a longer book project that seeks new ways of reading literature and colonial medicine over a long nineteenth century. Mayo’s compendious volume serves as an important component within that project, bringing up the rear of almost half a century of bilious Western writing on medicine, disease, and health in India.

Mother India first drew my attention to medicine’s usefulness for imperial apologetics. Armed with case reports on child wives and mothers generated by nineteenth-century women doctors, Mayo shamed Indians demanding self-rule. Her ‘clinical’ takedown of political nationalism led me to colonial era documents in the National Archives of India and to histories of obstetrics and gynecology. Together, these materials clarified how Victorian women strategically deployed pathetic images of suffering Oriental women, barred from male physicians, to justify their own entry into medicine. The special issue article addresses international public health generally, but readers interested in the medical-professional background to Mother India’s specifically ‘gynecological vein’ are invited to consult my earlier work on women’s medicine in colonial India in Genders (1994) or Eroticism and Containment ( For a more recent study of Mother India that extends discussion of gender, medicine, and colonial nationalism into the field of animal studies, see “Cruel Husbandry: Vegetarians and Other Carnivores,” forthcoming in Comparative Studies of South Asia Africa and the Middle East (special issue on the nonhuman question). This article in part explores how Mother India’s sensational articulation of women’s health and abusive animal husbandry sought to whip up international hostility toward demands for self-determination spearheaded by M.K. Gandhi. For Gandhi’s 1926 correspondence with Mayo: MAYO ( and review of Mother India: Times Machine: October 9, 1927 –

Mother India


Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.

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