International health and the limits of its global influence: bhutan and the worldwide smallpox eradication programme

Med Hist. 2013 Oct;57(4):461-86. doi: 10.1017/mdh.2013.63.


Histories of the global smallpox eradication programme have tended to concentrate on the larger national formations in Africa and Asia. This focus is generally justified by chroniclers by the fact that these locations contributed a major share of the world’s annual tally of variola, which meant that international agencies paid a lot of attention to working with officials in national and local government on anti-smallpox campaigns in these territories. Such historiographical trends have led to the marginalisation of the histories of smallpox eradication programmes in smaller nations, which are presented either in heroic, institutional tropes as peripheral or as being largely shorn of sustained campaigns against the disease. Using a case study of Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China, an effort is made to reclaim the historical experiences in small national entities in the worldwide smallpox eradication programme. Bhutan’s experience in the 1960s and 1970s allows much more in addition. It provides us with a better understanding of the limited powers of international agencies in areas considered politically sensitive by the governments of powerful nations such as India. The resulting methodological suggestions are of wider historical and historiographical relevance.