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Science between law and practice: Anatomy regulations in the British Empire

Event type
Imperial and World History Seminar Colonial/Postcolonial New Researchers’ Workshop
Event dates
, 5:30PM - 7:00PM
Online- via Zoom
Sohini Chattopadhyay (Columbia)
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Why did an increasingly prevalent practice of cadaveric dissection in the nineteenth and the twentieth century have different geographical jurisdictions and social authority? What do these distinctions tell us about the relationship between science, law, and the modern state? I analyze the different iterations of Anatomy Laws as they were used to regulate the supply of cadavers across three connected imperial formations: Britain, British settler colonies which had anatomy legislations; and colonial India which did not have one. In India, an informal network ratified by municipal by-laws and dependent on local caste networks sustained the supply. What does India’s marked distinction with these other forms of polities: the settler colonies and the metropolitan state, tell us about scientific authority in colonies, legal power, and its instrumentalization of social difference? I draw upon the archives of private charities, debates on bills, and municipal regulations to argue that while the laws in Britain and its several settler colonies were used to maintain class and racial boundaries, in India dissection depended on archaic caste-based practices of death work that did not require legal justification. Advocates of anatomical education converted untouchable labor associated with cremation and burial into professional assistants in colleges who helped in dissection and procured dead bodies. This presence of caste labor for a practice claiming to be absolutely "modern" had to be unwritten and disavowed in official documents. What did this official disavowal and unofficial entrenchment with caste in practice mean for forging epistemic shifts in scientific practices? These two analytical moves: comparison and then a focused case study, intervenes in the historiography of global science on one hand, and British Empire on the other. Procuring bodies for anatomical education suggest ways in which scientific practices use extant society and state relations to prop itself up, and also create new norms of state, society and spatial relations.

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a PhD Candidate in the History Department, Columbia University. Sohini’s dissertation looks at science and technological uses and innovations in moments of mass deaths such as famine, epidemics and riots; and how these transformed the urban form and reorganized social relations in colonial South Asia. Prior to coming to Columbia, she studied in the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her dissertation research is funded by the Social Science Research Council, The American Institute for Indian Studies, and Columbia University Hofstadter Fellowship.  

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