Kipling and Medicine


(by Gillian Sheehan)

Kipling’s early experience

Lack of sanitation always bothered Kipling. In May 1882, while still at school, he was writing articles for local newspapers on gas and sewerage. His father, in a letter to Cormell Price said RK was “writing nonsense about sanitation etc. in some local paper – terribly fluent and diffuse – but altogether wide of any useful purpose”. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.1, p.20.]

A few years later he explored the cow-byres in Lahore and Anarkali. He was taken to eight cow-byres and reported :

“nothing I have written can convey any idea of the utter loathsomeness of these establishments; the absolute disregard of every law of decency and cleanliness in their management, or their pestilential surroundings”.

He went on to say that the public of Lahore should demand the removal of every cow-byre to some spot “where it is possible to exercise efficient and intelligent control over it”. But he didn’t expect any action: some kept their own cows and those too poor or reckless to do so wouldn’t do anything, hoping that as they had survived so far, they would escape scot-free. “And the result will be – exactly what we see around us at present – preventable disease leading to death.”
[Information from “Typhoid At Home”, Civil & Military Gazette, 31 March 1885, collected in Kipling’s India, Uncollected Sketches,1884-1888, edited by Thomas Pinney.]

In February 1886, he wrote to W.C.Crofts: “Drains are a great and glorious thing and I study ’em and write about ’em when I can.” Further on in the same letter he wrote: “….one decent primer on Sanitary Engineering and sewage disposal is worth more than all the tomes of sacred smut ever produced”. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.1, p.121.]

In 1886 Kipling wrote to Margaret Burne-Jones that he:

“fell foul of the Lahore Municipality for the filthy state of Lahore City and every moment I could spare from routine work was devoted to abusing them and pointing out a few trifling foolish defects in their drains and sanitary arrangements.”

He went on to say that he:

“had managed to get a few neglected evils looked into and startled the old President – Nawab Nawazish Ali Khan – almost into energy. By the same token my wanderings into the lesser known lanes and gullies of the city made me most amazing sick….” [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.1 p.131.]

In “New Brooms”, (1888), Kipling described the spread of infection due to filth and the general ignorance of the people with regard to sanitation. He took the side of a frustrated former District Officer begging the Indian Government to allow him to force “Ram Buksh” to:

“clean your mohullas; pay for clean water; keep your streets swept; and see that your food is sound”. But the days of paternal government were over and Ram Buksh had become an intelligent voter, “fearfully entangled among Boards and Committees” and the former District Officer was refused permission to look after his sanitation.

A dilemma for the Indian Government

There was great anxiety among medical officers regarding, among other things, the pollution of water supplies to cantonments by Indian villagers living upstream. In 1877 permission was granted by the Indian government to empower committees to inspect villages within a five mile radius of the eight cantonments initially involved in the scheme. The committees could insist that wells be repaired, refuse be collected, latrines provided, etc. All of this involved considerable expenditure, as well as “interference” in the lives of the villagers. So, initially, funds were drawn from the military budget.

But Lord Ripon – Viceroy of India from 1880 to1884 – realised that eventually the Indian people would have to fund such works, and with this in mind, decided to introduce Indian representation on municipal commissions and to extend representative local government in rural areas, most of which was under the direct control of British district commissioners. He was aware that the transition to local self-government might be detrimental to the provision of local services, but thought it would be worth it in the long run : “It is better to endure the postponement of even really useful measures”, he wrote, “than to check the advance of habits of self-government among the people”. [Information from Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.167.]

The Sanitary Commissioner, J.M.Cunningham, claimed:

“the system of local government lately inaugurated cannot fail to have a decided effect upon sanitary progress. By giving over these matters to local management, there can be little doubt that the residents will bestir themselves regarding them in a way they have never done hitherto”.

But many officers in his own department and many ICS officers did not share his view. [Information from Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.170.]

Municipal commissioners were often reluctant to fund sanitary works, sometimes on religious or cultural grounds but more often to save money. In “Municipal”, (1887) Binks of Hezabad had to go and see the City Elders to get them to unblock the “Main Drain sewage-outfall”. Occasionally there was enthusiasm for sanitary reform among the wealthy Indians: In 1887 one Bengali bequeathed over a lakh of rupees, and in 1890 Raja Surja Kant donated Rs 112,500 for the building of a waterworks in Mymersingh. [Information from Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.172-3.]

Kipling’s reporting

Could there have been others ? In 1886, Kipling wrote “A Legend Of The Foreign Office” in which Rustum Beg of Kolazai “Built a gaol and Hospital – nearly built a City drain -”. In 1888 Kipling visited Benares and then Calcutta. In “The Bride’s Progress” he describes a honeymoon couple sightseeing in Benares. The Bride begins by objecting to the “twice two thousand stenches” and picked her way through the “neglected rainbow-hued sewage” sprawled across their path. In the Temple of the Cow “the walls dripped filth, the pavement sweated filth, and the contagion of uncleanliness walked among the worshippers”. In “City Of Dreadful Night” (collected in From Sea To Sea, Vol.2), Kipling thought Benares was “fouler (than Calcutta) in point of concentrated, pent-up muck”, and said that there were “local stenches” in Peshawar that were stronger than the Big Calcutta Stink; but, “for diffused, soul-sickening expansiveness, the reek of Calcutta beats both Benares and Peshawar”. It resembled “the essence of corruption that had rotted for the second time – the clammy odour of blue slime”. He thought that if an up-country station with 3,000 troops and 20 civilians had such a stink, the Deputy Commissioner or the Cantonment Magistrate “would have all the natives off the board of management or decently shovelled into the background until the mess was abated”. He continued:

“in spite of that stink they allow, they even encourage, natives to look after the place ! The damp, drainage-soaked soil is sick with the teeming life of a hundred years, and the Municipal Board list is choked with the names of natives – men of the breed born in and raised off this surfeited muck-heap !”

Lack of progress

In general sanitary standards in India did not improve . In 1894 the Army Sanitary Commission observed that:

“….sanitation is still almost everywhere unknown or, if heard at all, is disliked as a new-fangled, troublesome and expensive innovation. The people prefer to live and die as their forefathers lived and died – to be left alone”.
[Information from Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.94.

In “The Undertakers” (1894), Kipling made the Adjutant Crane say : “in Calcutta of the South, in the old days, ….everything was thrown into the streets and we picked and chose…. But today they keep their streets as clean as the outside of an egg and my people fly away”. These improvements had taken about fifty years. A young soldier arriving at Fort William ,Calcutta, in 1852, wrote in his memoirs, forty years later :

“The only efficient scavengers were the huge birds of prey called adjutants, and so great was the dependence placed on the exertions of these unclean creatures that the young cadets were warned that any injury done to them would be treated as gross misconduct.’
[Information from Michael Edwardes, Bound to Exile, p.49]

Further afield

In May 1889 Kipling arrived in San Francisco where he found all the men spat “on principle”. In the Palace Hotel the spittoons were “on the staircases, in each bedroom…..but they blossomed in chiefest splendour round the Bar, and they were all used, every reeking one of ’em”. [Information from From Sea To Sea, Vol.1, p.474.]

Years later, when Kipling visited Dublin in 1911, he wrote that “the people in the streets spat joyously (after the manner of the U.S.)”. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.4 , p.58.]
South Africa

Kipling blamed the English for ‘planting disease’ in South Africa during the Boer War. In Something Of Myself, he recalled that until then:

“the vast sun-baked land was antiseptic and sterilised – so much so that a clean abdominal Mauser-wound often entailed no more than a week of abstension from solid food.”

But “carelessness, officialdom and ignorance were responsible for much of the death rate”. He remembered seeing a Horse Battery coming in at night, very tired and wet, and being ordered to camp, “by some idiot saving himself trouble”, on the site of an evacuated typhoid hospital. They had thirty cases of typhoid in a month. As casualties continued to pour in, the existing hospitals rapidly became overcrowded and makeshift hospitals were set up at other sites. The water supplies were often cut off by the Boers or contaminated by sewage. Disease spread quickly.

Kipling reckoned the most important medical office in any battalion ought to be “Provost Marshal of Latrines”. No thought was giving to the siting of latrines which was considered “nigger-work”. He calculated that during the Boer War the British forces may have killed four thousand Boers, but that the British casualties “mainly from preventable disease” were six times as many. Thomas Pakenham in The Boer War lists them : “English dead, 22,000 ; Boer dead, more than 7,000. Of the British deaths, probably the greater part were from disease”.

After the Boer War, Henry Edward Leigh Canney, who took his MD in London in 1890, campaigned for measures to prevent typhoid in armies. He proposed having a programme of instruction to make it a “crime” to use any unapproved water source and a special water supply section whose transport was to be kept “sacred”. The Royal Army Medical Corps was to supply the officers assigned to the water section. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.3, p.140, note1.]

Kipling wrote to Canney in September 1903. He approved of Canney’s idea of a programme of instruction which he thought best suited to soldiers in barracks “as a protective measure for the good of what are really children….” and he thought there should be “the strictest regulation of the cheap bazar aerated drinks, soda, lemon, and all the rest of them, which are nests of microbes”. But regarding ”the mule-borne water apparatus under charge of the R.A.M.C.”, he said: “ I have yet to know the education that will keep a crazy-thirsty man away from water – even though a carcase is floating or a mule staling in it.”

A continuing concern

In October 1911, in a letter to Sir James Walker, Kipling hoped that the Durbar at Delhi would be cancelled because “The risks both of life and of plague are so heavy….” [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.4, p.54].

On a visit to Ireland in October 1911, Kipling, in a letter to his children, Elsie and John, described the River Liffey as ‘a rich, pure black stone-faced sewer’. He said that ‘the dirt and slop and general shiftlessness of Dublin beats belief’. [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.4, letter to Col.Feilden, 2 October 1911.] Regarding Belfast he wrote that ‘nothing short of the Deluge would clean the city’.

In a letter to Captain R.A.Duckworth Ford, an Englishman serving with the American army in the Philippines in December 1911, Kipling asked for some reports on sanitation such as the disposal of rubbish, village water arrangements, and their methods of dealing with cholera outbreaks. Kipling went on to say:

‘permanganate of potash down the village well, and dilute sulphuric for the villager appears to be the accepted treatment now, and they tell me they can get an outbreak under control in three days. But we don’t make any head against plague.’ [Information from Thomas Pinney, editor, The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.4, letter to Captain R.A.Duckworth-Ford, 10 December 1911.]

Plague appeared in Bombay in the late summer of 1896 and by April 1897 had killed 9,640 people in Bombay alone. In Calcutta Kipling’s disapproval of having natives on Municipal Boards as expressed in “The City Of Dreadful Night” was put in plain language by the Englishman when they reported in January 1897 that:

‘the Government of India….and the Government of Bengal afford indications of the fact that the Hindu Commissioners must either stop talking or stop being Commissioners’,and that the only way to prevent plague in Calcutta was to make sure that the city was ‘thoroughly cleansed’. [Information from Mark Harrison, Public Health in British India, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.217-218.]

Plague did break out in Calcutta in April 1898. There were several outbreaks of plague in the following years. A million Indians died in 1903 and there were severe pneumonic plague outbreaks in 1910 -11 and 1920-21 in Northern Manchuria. India alone had over twelve million deaths from plague in the first half of the twentieth century. [Information from Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit To Mankind, Fontana, 1999, p.463-464.]

At the beginning of the poem ‘The Spies March’ (1913), is an extract from a ‘private letter from Manchuria’ which records:

‘the outbreak is in full swing and our death rate would sicken Napoleon…. Dr. M- died last week, and C- on Monday, but some more medicines are coming…We don’t seem to be able to check it at all…Villages panicking badly….In some places not a living soul…but at any rate the experience gained may come in useful, so I am keeping my notes written up to date in case of accidents….Death is a queer chap to live with for steady company.’

The Great War

In France At War, (1915), Kipling wrote of the camp of a Moroccan regiment:

‘There is no better guide to camp than one’s own thoughtful nose; and though I poked mine everywhere, in no place then or later did it strike that vile betraying taint of underfed, unclean men. And the same with the horses.’

Further on in the same report he met a Colonel who ‘had tapped the mountain streams and dug out a laundry where a man could wash his shirt ….had drained the trenches till a muddy stretch in them was an offence….and at the bottom of the hill …he had created baths where half a battalion at a time could wash.

In “A Trooper Of Horse” (The Eyes Of Asia, 1917), Duffadar Abdul Rahman, stationed in France, sent a letter home to his mother in the Punjab. He had learnt a lot in France and wanted his mother to make sure his son drank only boiled water ‘at least from the beginning of the hot weather till after the Rains’. He also wanted his son vaccinated against smallpox. (He hadn’t bothered about it before, being busy with his work.) He was furious about a religious fair at Zilabad where thousands of people collected beside a river in hot weather and spread cholera all over the district. He thought the religious mendicants who proclaimed such fairs should be punished for making sickness and polluting the drinking-water, that ‘there should be an order of the Government to take all those lazy rascals out of India into France and put them in our front-line that their bodies may be sieves for the machine guns’. Further on in the letter he told her:

‘We have no smallpox or diseases here. Our doctors are strict, and refuse is burned by the sweepers. It is said there is no physician like fire. He leaves nothing to the flies. It is said that flies produce sicknesses, especially when they are allowed to sit on the nostrils and the corners of the eyes of the children or to fall into their milk-pots. The young children of this country of France are beautiful and do not suffer from sickness…..There are hundreds of women behind our lines who make clean and repair the dirty clothes of the troops. Afterwards they are baked in very hot ovens which utterly destroy the vermin and also, it is said, diseases’.

In “The Fumes Of The Heart” (The Eyes Of Asia) a Sikh recovering from his injuries in the Pavilion and Dome Hospital, Brighton in 1915, dictated a letter to be sent to his brother who was a farmer near Amritsar. He told him how the French did not need to burn dung for fuel. ‘They build their houses round about mountainous dung-heaps, upon which they throw all things in season.’ He went on to tell him that the horse-dung from the Army horses would be taken away in carts by the ‘cultivators’, hence keeping the horse-lines clean.

In “Canadians In Camp” (The New Army In Training, 1915), Kipling reported that:

‘the corps were dealing with all sorts of little domestic matters in the way of arrangements for baths, which are cruelly needed, and an apparatus for depopulating shirts, which is even more wanted. Healthy but unwashen men sleeping on the ground are bound to develop certain things which at first disgust them, but later are accepted as an unlovely part of the game’. He was referring to fleas, lice and ticks.

In Brazilian Sketches (1927), just as the adjutant birds were scavengers in Calcutta, at Pernambuco Kipling saw the shovel-nosed sharks who were ‘respectable harbour-scavengers’ and ‘need not be fished for’. In Rio de Janeiro he was told that people did not ‘normally throw litter about…their fight against fever in the past had most practically taught them tidiness’. He continued:

‘Unpleasant things happen to the householder to-day if his cisterns and rubbish -heaps attract mosquitoes in the city, and hard-handed Municipal chiefs see that he pays up. And that is the reason it is so hard to find a bad smell in Rio.’