Brown Bag Lecture: Pharmaceutical Crossings: Sleeping Sickness Research between Europe, Colonial Africa, and the United States, 1890–1950

Lunchtime Lectures
Monday, March 13, 2017
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a Brown Bag Lecture with Sarah Ehlers, one of our 2016–2017 short-term fellows.

At the beginning of the 20th century, sleeping sickness epidemics broke out in different parts of colonial Africa. Spreading rapidly, the disease caused escalating death tolls and posed an acute problem for colonial authorities. At the same time, this was a fascinating field of inquiry for tropical physicians and scientists. Sleeping sickness research started in the early days of the so-called therapeutic revolution that was driven by new therapeutic agents and particularly by science-based, mass-produced pharmaceuticals. In this regard developing a medication that would cure the tropical malady constituted not only a blueprint for a range of other infectious diseases but—with hundreds of thousands of infected colonial subjects detained in medical camps—also a testing ground for newly developed pharmaceuticals.

Sleeping sickness research was as much fueled by the interest of European scientists as by the flowering pharmaceutical industry, which sought new markets around the globe. This mutually constitutive relationship between biomedicine and colonial empire, the development of pharmaceuticals, and the emergence of a pharmaceutical industry are at the heart of Sarah Ehlers’s research. Taken together, these strands reveal a remarkable transnationalism of colonial health programs and research. By focusing on the growing pharmaceuticalization of disease control in colonial Africa, she argues that scientific knowledge not only circulated between metropole and colony but also between different colonial territories, between empires, and in international networks. In light of their global context the histories of modern pharmaceuticals and colonial rule were intimately connected, and this is particularly evident in the case of sleeping sickness.

About the Speaker

Sarah Ehlers is a historian specializing in global history and the history of modern biomedicine. Her work focuses on infectious disease control in colonial and decolonizing Africa, on medical humanitarianism, and on questions of entangled and transnational history and of environmental history. After receiving her PhD from Humboldt University Berlin, she started working toward a postdoctoral project on environmental disease control at the Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester, U.K. Her doctoral dissertation on colonial sleeping sickness campaigns, European identities, and modern medicine will soon be appearing in book form. Pharmaceutical Crossings, Sarah’s project at the Beckman Center, will investigate chemotherapeutic research between Europe, colonial Africa, and the United States during the 1920s and 1960s.

About the Series

Brown Bag Lectures (BBLs) are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.