Margaret Jones
Research Fellow, Centre for Global Health Histories



BA (Warwick), MA (Huddersfield), PhD (Bristol)

Margaret Jones is a historian of medicine and colonialism in Sri Lanka and Jamaica. She joined the History Department at York after six years at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at Oxford University as a Research Officer and then as a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow.

She has worked extensively on the development of public health policies and the medical services of colonial Sri Lanka and Jamaica. She is currently working on the development of primary health care services and the impact of international initiatives in Sri Lanka, 1950-2000.



Margaret was previously based at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine and her research was funded by the Wellcome Trust. Her interest in Sri Lanka was triggered by its record in achieving good quality of life indicators. Life expectancy, infant mortality and female literacy indicators, despite nearly 30 years of civil conflict, far exceed those of nations with a similar GDP and are strikingly better than its dominant neighbour to the north, India.

The roots of this singular development arguably lie in the colonial period; by the 1940s Sri Lanka had an embryonic welfare state with an extensive network of health services, funded by the government and free at the point of delivery. Sri Lanka was deemed Britain's model colony and since independence has been viewed as the exemplar of the provision of good health at low cost. And yet in the literature on colonial medicine it had been ignored.

Two monographs emerged from this research. The first analysed the effectiveness of a range of public health policies concerned with the diseases of poverty, infant and maternal welfare services, malaria and hookworm in the first half of the twentieth century. It concluded by questioning the validity of any generalised view of the impact and import of biomedicine in the colonial context. Her second monograph concentrated on the development of hospitals from 1850 onwards. It found that hospitals acted as an engine of growth for health care services and encouraged the perception that access to medical services was a right. However, as curative medicine became ever more technological and costly, hospitals also threatened the provision of the preventive health care services which had been crucial to Sri Lanka's transition to a modern health profile.

In contrast the Caribbean was described by one British administrator as an imperial slum. Frequent references to the shortcomings of the health care services of the British West Indies in Colonial Office files prompted Margaret to explore this contrasting example of British colonialism. An examination of Jamaica's public health history did little to dispel this view.

This project was approached from three perspectives: the imperial government, the local elites, and the needs of the black working class who suffered the double disadvantage of both race and class prejudice. The legacy of slavery was a crucial element in these perceptions and in the resulting poor quality of medical services. The imperial government's neglect of its West Indian possessions was shaken only intermittently. Firstly, in 1860 when the appalling conditions in Jamaica's public hospital prompted an empire-wide system of hospital reports which opened them up to imperial scrutiny. Secondly, in 1938 when the labour rebellions in Jamaica triggered a Royal Commission which codified a radical new approach to imperial development. For the first time, colonies received imperial funding for social and welfare services.

A singular experience of Jamaica was the presence in the island from 1919 until 1950 of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation. The extensive nature of its work in the island (it was involved in yaws, public education and training campaigns, tuberculosis and malaria work) facilitates a critical analysis of the impact of its work. The results of the Jamaican research, Public Health in Jamaica, 1850-1962: Neglect, Philanthropy and Development, will be published by the University of the West Indies Press in 2013.


In 1949 S. W. D Bandaranaike (Minister of Health) declared Sri Lanka's acceptance of the World Health Organisation's concept of health – "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being" - as being a fundamental human right. Margaret's current project, with Professor Sanjoy Bhattacharya, will look at how this commitment by the new nation was operationalised through a history of its primary health care facilities from 1950 to the present. This includes an examination of the complex interactions between local and national actors and with the global initiatives of the World Health Organisation.   

Contact details

Dr Margaret Jones
Centre for Global Health Histories
Berrick Saul Building BS/120
University of York
YO10 5DD

Tel: Internal 8126, External (01904) 328126