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Tabloid brand medicine chests: selling health and hygiene for the British tropical colonies

Johnson, R. (2008) Tabloid brand medicine chests: selling health and hygiene for the British tropical colonies. Science as Culture, 17 (3). pp. 249-268. ISSN 0950-5431

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During the late Victorian and early Edwardian period a surge of commodities went on display and were advertised throughout the empire. One such commodity was the Burroughs Wellcome & Co. (BWC) Tabloid brand medicine chest. The marketing of the chest was intimately related to BWC's economic and political interests in empire, contributing to a discourse of tropicality and belief in western progress and white European superiority in Britain's tropical colonies. BWC used their scientific and medical authority to further differentiate and fix western culture and the identity of white Europeans, in opposition to the tropics and their inhabitants. Despite BWC's claims to the medical and scientific superiority of these chests, the majority of their contents were in use for hundreds, if not thousands of years, often deriving from the very contexts white Europeans were supposedly civilising with their aid. BWC's advertisement and promotion of their chests, in this case, reveals processes of hybridisation between supposedly distinct cultures. The selling of Tabloid brand medicine chests contributed to a belief in western and white European superiority, but closer investigation of their contents demonstrates how such claims were, in the end, inherently problematic and unstable. Such an analysis shows that the ultimate medical value of the chests did not derive from unbiased and empirical processes, but from academic, state and industrial authority in relation to Britain's imperial ambitions.