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Medicine and Power in Modern Africa


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenors and tutors: Dr Hilary Sapire, Dr Sarah Marks
  • Assessment: two 2500-word essays (25% each) and a three-hour examination (50%)

Module description

Through the intensive study of primary materials and specialist works of scholarship, in this module we explore the important role played by disease, medicine and healing traditions in African history. We will consider the encounter between European colonial and post-colonial medicine and African societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the medical and therapeutic cultures which grew out of these interactions.

By focusing on disease and epidemics as forces of historical change - smallpox, sleeping sickness and AIDS, for example - and on the interactions between western biomedicine and global health agendas with African healing cultures, we seek to develop an understanding of wider patterns in the social, cultural and political history of colonial and post-colonial Africa.

Indicative syllabus

  • Approaches and debates, defining the field
  • Colonial medicine and the 'Tropics' since c.1850
  • African healing practices before colonialism
  • Germ, theory, Africa and empire - tropical medicine
  • Colonial power, medicine and epidemic disease
  • Sex, gender and colonial medicine (focus on venereal diseases, reproductive health)
  • Labour and medical regimes - mining and medicine
  • Knowing the 'native mind' - ethno-psychiatry and social control
  • Medicine and missionaries
  • African healing cultures and European biomedicine - medical pluralisms
  • Mining and industrial health in twentieth-century South Africa
  • The WHO and international agencies in African health system planning
  • Cold War interventions: Cuban and East European aid and development in Africa
  • Decolonisation, Pan-Africanism and psychiatry
  • The professionalisation and regulation of traditional healing in Ghana
  • Appropriating African witchcraft
  • Medicinal plants and the modern pharmaceutical industry   
  • Apartheid and health, 1948-1994
  • Psychological therapies, counselling and ‘global mental health’
  • HIV/AIDS in South Africa

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will have knowledge of:

  • key debates about medicine in nineteenth and twentieth-century Africa
  • contemporaneous African social and political history
  • historical debates colonialism and decolonisation
  • the cultural and political context of medicine, healthcare and medical research.