Ferguson includes Medicine as the fourth chapter and fourth “killer application” in his Civilization: The West and the Rest. Western medicine has measurably changed the world for the better, as life spans and productivity (both, of course, quantitative measures) are increased as consequences of medicine; indeed, from 1800 to 2001, global life expectancies had more than doubled (146). The story of how Western medicine reached into the world, however, has not always been benign.
Ferguson cites colonization in Africa by the Western nation, France. Forced labor, an official in French Sudan who murdered, raped, carried out embezzlement, and other crimes by others of the French colonial government, including hanged natives and burned villages, all of which makes clear what was the often fatal nature of colonization (166).
Indeed, one does not have to search out information on the atrocities experienced in European colonized lands in such places as Africa and Southeast Asia. Ferguson duly recognizes these effects of colonization, which are important to remember. He also writes of the positive results of colonization, which are perhaps less often written and spoken of.
To stay with the example of the French colonial government, Ferguson writes that it improved as time went on (after the First World War) (166); and “there is no question that here, as elsewhere, Western empire brought real, measurable progress,” such as through compulsory vaccinations (173).
These measures of progress, particularly increased life expectancies, beg the question: is this one measure of good (though, from the colonial governments’ perspective, there were more than one measure of good) and the measure of bad it offset (shorter life expectancies) worth the numerous other positive and negative measures it caused? This is not a question that can be answered in one post, but is an aspect worth considering when analyzing Ferguson’s fourth “killer application” of Western civilization.
Nonetheless, “Europeans had come to Africa claiming that they would civilize it. But even the French, with all their good intentions, failed to implant more than a very limited version of Western civilization there,” (188). When people are forced into a system, especially one so frequently brutal, (and especially when the group implementing the system think that the subject population will be so much the better, in disregard for their original way of life) the results will be mixed at best. To what extent can a group of people have a system imposed on them and benefit from any good in the system? Given advances in such things as medicine, would the areas where colonialism has occurred be better off today if never subjected to it in the first place? I suppose that that depends on from which point in history the observer is looking.
Aside from this, if one holds that advances in medicine are beneficial to society and the individuals it is composed of, then medicine is certainly a pillar of civilization. Western civilization has certainly made the most breakthroughs and perfected medicine most.