The British Empire Library

Spindoctor: Tropical Disease Research in Africa

by Roy Rickman

Courtesy of OSPA

Dr Wenzel Geissler (Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)
From a completely different vantage point of a book like Practising Colonial Medicine: The Colonial Medical Serice in British East Africa - not that of a student of history, but that of a protagonist - Rickman's book gives us insights into this life. As the opening sentence - 'The leopard came just before midnight....' - makes clear, this book does not pretend to be a scholarly work, but a collection of memories and stories of a long and fruitful medical-scientific career (the author is not a doctor but a medical parasitologist and public health expert). Nevertheless, the author provides us with deep insight into the identity and ideology, character and lifestyle, of late colonial medical staff. Rickman proceeds chronologically, from WW2 to his present days of retirement. He covers thus one of the most exciting periods of colonial medical work: the emergence of scientific public health, the foundation of new research institutes, as well as several successful disease control campaigns. Rickman dedicates an early chapter to his own 'radical change of direction' - into colonial health - and to his choice as well as the interview and selection process that allowed him, eventually, to pursue it. While some of his recollections - notably about class and about the older generations of doctors - bear out Crozier's observations, other important factors become visible here, such as his personal quest for scientific knowledge and further education, and a (maybe typically post-war) longing for adventure and professional fulfilment. These traits become much more pertinent in later parts of the book, where field research, or 'bush work', and the continuous trail of learning and discovery that is associated to it, move to the centre of his attention.

The ethos of field-work - going out, exploring issues and trying to sort them out - and of make-do - improvising with limited means, combining ideas and ingenuity with whatever material at hand to create new technologies - such as the 'string powered centrifuge' that gives the book its title - are of great interest. These traits of the Colonial Service are more important to learn about for present generations than traditional class values and imperial visions, because they can provide inspiration beyond the specifics of the colonial historical context. While Rickman describes this ethos and the associated practices from a personal viewpoint, these material aspects of scientific work will be of great interest also to historians and anthropologists of science. Rickman's book thus provides a fascinating read on how scientific innovations are produced, not merely in the realm of ideas, but in that of concrete, often strenuous, work. As such, it is as much as Crozier's about 'practising' colonial medicine.

By way of conclusion, this book when combined with Practising Colonial Medicine: The Colonial Medical Serice in British East Africa can be warmly recommended to readers interested in the history of medicine and the Colonial Service, as well as in the colonial project as such. Crozier in her book provides us with useful facts and figures on recruitment and the background of pre-war medical staff, and triggers many questions that will inspire future research. Rickman, on the other hand, provides for somewhat lighter reading, but the wealth of detail of his account speaks very well to recent scholarly interests - in the social science and humanities and in public health - and goes thus far beyond what one would expect from a medical biography. It provides a good read to all of us, but it should not be overlooked by the academic readership.

British Empire Book
Roy Rickman
The Author
978 0 9553360 0 3