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History in Review

Networks in Tropical Medicine

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Networks in Tropical Medicine: Internationalism, Colonialism, and the Rise of a Medical Specialty, 1890-1930
By Deborah J. Neill
Stanford University Press, Stanford: 2012
292 pages, 1 Map, 9 Illustrations
ISBN: 978-0-8047-7813-8

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - April 4, 2012

The development of Tropical Medicine as a distinct specialty followed a track that was divergent from most medical specialities. In part this was because the panoptic of Tropical Medicine included not only medical doctors, but it also welcomed people from a diverse range of scientific fields, including parasitology, zoology, helminthology, and related fields. Connected by common goals and having similar principles and cultural (i.e., European/Western) underpinnings, the predominantly male members of this new speciality that arose in the late 1880's formed an epistemic community that shared knowledge and readily worked together despite political differences.

In Networks in Tropical Medicine: Internationalism, Colonialism, and the Rise of a Medical Specialty, 1890-1930, Deborah J. Neill chronicles the development of Tropical Medicine as a new specialty and she explores the international and intercolonial aspects of the work done by this international group of scientists. This is accomplished by detailing the community's work in combating sleeping sickness, and its primary vector, the Tsetse fly. She also details the various networks created by these scientists, how they were trained, common research methodologies, and those uniting factors that helped them to form a solid international community. She also examines how the members of this community differed from each other, and how the community coped with these differences.

In the course of this study, Neill, an assistant Professor of History at York University, shows how researches made the transition from the older 'medical geography' methodology that put the onus on environmental factors as a cause for infectious disease to a more a laboratory-based approach. Neill explains how and why this new approach was adopted, and its consequences, both for patients and for the researchers. Along the way, she also highlights some of the early, key figures in field of tropical medicine, and how and why various European governments aided the development of tropical medicine as a unique field of study.

At the center point of this narrative is Neill's overview of the campaign to combat sleeping sickness in Africa. Three of the seven chapters in this book are devoted to the various campaigns waged against sleeping sickness and the Tsetse fly. These chapters cover the "Sleeping Sickness Campaigns, 1901-1910," the "Sleeping Sickness Campaigns in German Cameroon and French Equatorial Africa," and the "Sleeping Sickness Drug Therapy Research, 1903-1914" that was lead by Paul Ehrlich.

The final chapter in this book, "A Legacy of Embitterment" looks at how World War I had a chilling effect upon the various networks, hobbling their efforts to share information and to aid each other's efforts to combat tropical diseases. She shows how the war severed once friendly ties, and divided the researches more along political lines rather than scientific ones. She also illustrates how sleeping sickness remained a problem after the war, and how the hostilities and mistrust that arose as a result of the war hampered the continuing efforts to eliminate the threat of sleeping sickness and threatened the very nature of international science - in all fields of endeavor.

Networks in Tropical Medicine is an important addition to the body of works on the history of infectious diseases. It is also unique in that it shows the multi-national efforts used in the development of tropical medicine, and it provides keen insights in how medicine and scientific research was touted by colonial powers as major benefit for those that they had colonized. Eye-opening and engrossing, this book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of tropical medicine, colonialism, international relationships, public health, to name just a few fields.

Related Reviews:

Plague Ports: The Global Urban Impact of Bubonic Plague, 1894-1901, by Myron Echenberg.
A detailed history of the third bubonic plague pandemic, in which the author follows the plague as it traveled around the globe, and looks at ten port cities that were affected by the plague, and how it was dealt within each city.

The Power of Plagues, by Irwin W. Sherman.
A comprehensive and accessible overview of the history of epidemic diseases, how they are transmitted, the social and political response to epidemic diseases both in the past and in the present, and how modern civilization is at just as much risk from epidemic diseases as were our ancestors.

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