Mini-conference on Health and Disease in Africa

"Gland-feelers, Researchers, and Elusive Patients: Perspectives on Sleeping Sickness Control in East Africa" presented by Mari Webel, Postdoctoral Fellow in African studies and Global Health, Emory Univeristy at the Center for Historical Research, Department of History, The Ohio State University on Feb. 1, 2013.

This talk, based on archival and oral history sources, examines colonial public health campaigns against sleeping sickness (human African trypanosomiasis) in the early twentieth century. It traces the advent and development of German sleeping sickness research and prevention work in the Great Lakes region among mobile, inter-colonial populations of patients and researchers, exploring how the search for potential patients defined the scope and scale of colonial interventions into everyday life. Efforts to identify and track people infected with trypanosomes drew African political leaders, colonial doctors, and affected communities into new relationships, and transformed established political and economic arrangements in their wake. Key to the effort to identify sleeping sickness cases was a cohort of medical auxiliaries known as "gland-feelers," who surveyed populations for signs of sleeping sickness and mediated people’s movements into and out of research and treatment sites. Centered on these gland-feelers, the paper locates sleeping sickness work within overlapping and entangled claims of care and authority made by colonial doctors and royal elites, which at once advanced and complicated the day-to-day business of governing. The paper also considers how small-scale histories of sleeping sickness campaigns can inform analyses of current global health policies, as sleeping sickness continues on its transition from "colonial disease" to a "neglected tropical disease," one now targeted for elimination in the coming decade.

"Neoplastic Africa: Mapping Networks of Toxicity and Knowledge" presented by Julie Livingston, Rutgers University.

This talk, based on a combination of historical and ethnographic research, maps the cancer epidemic that is rapidly emerging across the African continent in historical, institutional, and intellectual terms. It queries what kinds of biological publics are envisioned in African public health, and assumed by a simple model of epidemiological transition premised on a progressive developmental telos, and what sorts of cancers have formed the shifting center of gravity in oncology. It examining the constellation of intellectual, economic, and institutional forces through which the image of a biologically simple, cancer-free African public emerged historically. A curious element of this history is the growth and subsequent decline of a once promising center of oncology in East Africa. Indeed half a century ago, researchers in east and central Africa made significant contributions to the field of cancer immunology, and to clinical oncology. At the center of this work was a recognition that certain cancers can arise as co-infections in immunochallenged patients, but by the early 1970s the work has ceased and oncology had moed on. Finally the paper charts the contemporary implications of this history of medicine and public health by considering the transnational markets of toxic waste facilitated by this (false) image of a cancer free Africa, and the uncertainties surrounding the new HPV vaccines (for genital cancers) now making their way to Africa.

The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research in the Department of History provides a stimulating intellectual environment for studying important historical issues around the world. Each year the Center brings together scholars from various disciplines to examine issues of broad contemporary relevance in historical perspective.