Libri: Different Truths, Ethnomedicine in Early Postcards

Andrew J. Degnan, M.Phil. (Cantab), B.Sc.

The George Washington University School of Medicine

Different Truths: Ethnomedicine in Early Postcards

Author: Peter A.G.M. De Smet

Royal Tropical Institute / KIT Publishers

Published April 30, 2010 200 pgs / Paperback €34.50 (ISBN: 9789460220173)

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When tourists visit an exciting, fascinating locale, they inevitably take home postcards as memories of the places visited and people seen. One cannot help but notice how much more enamoring the destination appears on a glossy printed card than it did in person, no matter how illustrious the site. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine using postcards as a historical tool to discover the history of medicine in tribal cultures, but this feat is what Peter A.G.M. De Smet sets out to do in his book Different Truths: Ethnomedicine in Early Postcards.

After amassing a collection of postcards from across the globe through everything from historical collections to online auctions, De Smet set out to analyze the content of the postcard and glean the elements of truth regarding what he terms ethnomedicine underlying the stereotyped postcards. He goes beyond mere rote cataloging and organizing of postcards to expound their significance and extricate the truth beyond the manipulation of photographers and postcard companies. The industry and the practice of tourists buying and collecting these postcards is an interesting topic aside from the main thrust of this interpreted collection and is a subject that the author devotes just enough effort to provide the reader with a fascinating understanding of where these postcards originated and who held onto them.

Ethnomedicine is a novel term for the collective and varied practices of medicine employed by tribal, aboriginal and non-Western cultures. Its scope ranges from the witch doctors of the New World to the ancient practice of acupuncture in Asia. And while this term implies and identification of these cultures as being ‘other’ and in many ways implies an inherent superiority of Western medicine over these traditional, ethnic practices, De Smet narrowly explores these practices exampled in postcards while avoiding and, frequently, dispelling the myths propagated by negative attitudes regarding these cultures.

Sjaak van der Geest, in introducing this compilation, writes of ethnomedicine, “People all over the world are rational in dealing with sickness and health. It is only our cultural blinkers that prevent us from seeing their rationality.” It is a difficult task for the modern, biomedically-inclined historian to examine these postcards showing practices ranging from the reasonable acupuncture to the bewildering acts of exorcism shown in these images. Instead of placing judgment on these practices, the author explores the traditions underlying these seemingly bizarre practices in attempt to fit them to this rational framework. At times, he provides too much credit to the civilizations being explored and rationalizes practices ad absurdum.

This book is not, however, limited to the practices of tribal cultures and occasional views of Western, European medicine are incorporated as juxtaposition to those of the ‘other’ cultures. This decision to include ‘Westernized’ Europe and America initially appears contradictory to the title and purpose of the collection of postcards largely saturated with cards from the developing world such as Angola, Singapore, Chile, and China. On further examination, this decision fosters a better understanding of ethnomedicine. When discussing the postcards of ancient herbal medicine practices, De Smet displays a postcard of Eli Lilly’s Belladonna farms and processing plant as an example of a natural medication that has been adopted by Western medicine in the production of compounds such as atropine. It is this harmony between traditional and biomedical medical practice that De Smet seeks to emphasize in his choice of postcards.

The array of postcards included in this tome is astonishing and many of the practices depicted may surprise the reader. One particular treatment for neuralgia depicted graphically is for the patient to hold their hands on face (in order to have blood rush to the head, the caption explains) while the veins on the forehead are cut. This may appear as a barbaric method of alleviating headache and one that, in all likelihood, made the situation worse; however, in thinking about known vascular inflammation of the vessels of the face such as giant cell arteritis, this practice may have some rational basis.

The gamut of practices shown to the reader through these cards ranges from cupping in the Congo, acupuncture in China, enema use in Banzari, trephination in Ethiopia, to resetting of a dislocated shoulder in rural France. De Smet explores the people of the cultures and through lucid, succinct explanations of each card, offers the reader a meaningful insight into the accuracy of each postcard and the background of the culture and practice shown. In addition to portraying treatment, the images also show us fulminant pathology of exotic diseases including leprosy and smallpox.

It must be emphasized that one cannot rely on postcards as strictly accurate representations of the cultures described. Many postcards originated from medical missionaries seeking donations from those at home in Europe; one such card reads:

This picture is a direct challenge from heathenism…for more Medical Missionaries…These devil dancers pretend to cure the patient by frightening away the demon.

In others, the ill being cared for would be shown with a statement on the back of the card requesting monetary assistance; in essence, these cards served the purpose of charity advertisements seen on television today.

De Smet astutely points out scenes in which the ‘other’ culture is clearly posed and highlights key inaccuracies. He shows one set of cards where the same ‘actor’ served as dentist in one and then barber in another. With the author’s well-researched guidance and interpretation of these postcards, it is possible for the reader to gain an insight into the practice of medicine in these ‘other’ cultures.

This compilation of postcards transcends a mere collection of assorted cards to become a well-researched historical guide to various practices of ethnomedicine across the globe. Different Truths is a fascinating read that tells us just as much about the tribal cultures depicted as those who took these photographs and collected the postcards.

Andrew J. Degnan is a final year medical student at the George Washington University School of Medicine and a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge. His interests in the history of medicine led to the founding of Historia medicinae of which he currently serves as editor-in-chief.  He can be reached at: for comment or inquiry.


Historia Medicinae Editor,
Aug 17, 2011, 8:41 PM