Indonesian students historical photo

Colonial medicine from a different perspective

19 December 2018
Indonesian physicians spurred the nationalist movement
Historians of medicine investigate discoveries within medicine and their effects on everyday life, the organisation of medical care, and the medical profession.
Book launch night

Puspita Soelaiman, her sister Nita (descendants of Dr. Soelaiman), Professor Hans Pols, Johnny Saleh (grandson of Muhammas Saleh), and Nies Sudewo-Mangoenkoesoemo.


During the past three decades, they have investigated the practice of medicine several former European colonies. They have characterised colonial medicine as a tool of empire. For example, in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, Dutch physicians primarily cared for soldiers and colonial administrators.

After the turn of the 20th century, they implemented health programs for indentured labourers on plantations. Healthy workers were more productive and could bring more profit. The colonial administration funded medical education – founding medical colleges in Batavia (now Jakarta), and Surabaya – to educate more, and more affordable, physicians.

Professor Hans Pols, of the School of History and Philosophy of Science, explains, “As a historian of science I have been researching the history of medicine in the Dutch East Indies and Indonesia. And here I found many links between medicine and decolonisation”.

Hans Pols’ book Nurturing Indonesia: Medicine and Decolonisation in the Dutch East Indies, was published by Cambridge University Press in August 2018.  In this book, Prof Pols analyses what motivated Indonesian physicians and medical students in the Dutch East Indies to participate in the political affairs of the colony. Several medical students became founders of youth movements such as Young Java, Young Sumatra, and Young Abon. Physicians became journalists, and members of city councils and the colonial parliament.  They also participated in various organisations and political parties. They participated in the Indonesian nationalist movement, which came to advocate independence in the 1930s.

Professor Hans Pols book cover

Artwork Cover image for the English edition. Painted by Agus Sugianto.

Pols, Hans. Nurturing Indonesia: Medicine and Decolonisation in the Dutch East Indies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

The Indonesian translation, Merawat Bangsa: Sejarah Pergerakan Pada Dokter Indonesia, was launched on Monday 12 November at the Indonesian National Library in Jakarta. The book is published by KOMPAS. Two more book launches were held: one in Yogyakarta, and one in Surabaya.

The book launch in Jakarta was organised by the Indonesian Academy of Sciences. It was part of a two-day event Science at Merdeka Square.

“What made this launch very special,” Prof Pols relates, “was the presence of several descendants of the main characters in my book.”

“The founding of Budi Utomo [Beautiful Endeavour] by a retired Indonesian physician and several medical students at the Batavia medical college [STOVIA] in 1908,” Pols continued, “is generally seen as the start of the Indonesian nationalist movement. The great-grandson of the retired physician was present at the book launch, as were four grand-daughters of two of the medical students involved. One of them, Dr. Puspita Soelaiman, was part of the panel discussing the book.”

“The son of Dr. Abdulrahman Saleh were present as well. Saleh is considered the father of physiology in Indonesia. He also was an early radio enthusiast and aviator. In 1947, his plane, filled with medical supplies, was shut down by the Dutch armed forces who were attempting to reclaim their former colony after Indonesia had declared independence.”

“Nies Endang Mangunkusumo, the daughter of Eri Soedewo, one of the founders of the Indonesian armed forces in 1945 when he was a medical student, gave me the biography of her father. Not only does she have a well-known father. Her husband, Vidyapati Mangunkusumo, comes from a well-known family. Among his uncles were Cipto Mangunkusumo, the best-known physician-politician in the colonial era, and Gunawan Mangunkusumo, an influential medical researcher.”

“One other person of note was Soebaryo Mangunwidodo, the grand-son of Dr. Rajiman Wediodiningrat. Dr. Rajiman was court physician of the Sunan of Solo and a member of the colonial parliament. He gave me a copy of the biography of his grandfather he had authored.”