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The abuse of Africa as a German laboratory

Much has been made in the scholarship of political history of how early modern European imperial and colonial ventures were experimental avenues for today’s capitalist reality but in Africa too, groundbreaking medical research was unfortunately carried on Black bodies who had not consented to this.

In German East Africa in 1906, Robert Koch, a giant in the study of biological science and the man after whom Germany’s leading human disease research center is named, set up a camp of curative measures for trypanosomiasis or the sleeping sickness. The ailment is caused by the tsetse fly, a tropical insect.

When he embarked on the mission in 1906, it was not Koch’s first visit to Africa. In 1897, he had been invited by the white South African government to help understand and treat rinderpest, the infectious animal disease that had been killing livestock in large numbers.

What drew Koch to trypanosomiasis, we may never know. But on his second visit to Africa when he spent a year, he seemed bent on solving the mysterious disease that the British had called the Sleepy Distemper.

As now aptly named, sleeping sickness has the tendency to cause an overwhelming need for sleep, dullness, general body weakness, apathy and slow painful death. The ailment had become known to Europeans at the onset of the 18th century and they proceeded to look into it.

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Although the 20th century was a period of great scientific excitement via widespread curiosity and problem-solving creations, it was also the time medical ethics in Europe solidified its place in scientific education, thereby acting as a guardrail of an exuberant enterprise. But as it were, European medical ethics was not an insurance policy that covered Black bodies in Africa.

When Koch reached Africa, he had formulas which were theoretical remedies. Interestingly, the bacteriologist’s travel to Africa is the most unmentioned aspect of his professional career even though his method of treating trypanosomiasis became the standard in German colonies in east and west Africa.

Koch was treating attendants to his camp with arsenical drugs, containing an undoubtedly harmful substance to the human body. The doctor saw thousands of Africans but we do not know how many were healed without side effects.

It is not enough to suggest that Koch’s treatment was a success simply because his procedure became standard German Africa practice. For one thing, his patient population was definitely unaware of what chemicals were introduced into their bodies and may not know if Koch was using them as baits for his own scientific teleology.

The inconspicuous understanding of Koch’s African episode makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain if he was looking to cure trypanosomiasis or whether he found the Africans of German colonies useful to his curiosity.

Koch’s true intentions are a mystery to us but his actions are painful reminders of how Black bodies have been found expendable in relation to the Western imagination.

Koch was a brilliant scientist, and he likely genuinely wanted to cure sleeping sickness and improve the health and lives of those who suffered from the illness. Nevertheless, the methods he used to try and find a cure and the conditions he set up to contain the disease were rooted in colonial hierarchies.

He not only poisoned thousands of people but also contributed to the widespread acceptance of the idea that, when it comes to medical ethics, different rules apply to Africa and Europe.

As we continue to search for a vaccine or potential cure for the novel coronavirus, it is important to take heed from the dark chapters of the past, so that Africa is no longer a living laboratory for western scientists. (Al Jazeera)

Edna Bonhomme : writer

Bonhomme is a writer and historian of science based in Berlin, Germany.