Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Quinine, Whisky, and Sun Helmets: Amateur Medicine in British East and South-Central Africa, 1890-1939

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posted on 2021-12-08, 13:37 authored by Wells, Julia

Historians have extensively studied colonial doctors in Africa, and the connection between colonial medical services and imperial power. The focus has, however, fallen almost exclusively on medical practice by trained, qualified, and professional doctors and nurses, and neglected amateur treatments carried out by white settlers. This project explores amateur medical treatment in rural parts of British East and South-Central Africa, primarily Kenya and Rhodesia, between 1890 and 1939. It draws upon a range of memoirs, novels, letters, and advice books, most notably the memoirs of white settler women including Karen Blixen, Elspeth Huxley, Hylda Richards, and Alyse Simpson.   The time period is characterised by a marked contrast between the emergence of tropical medicine and hygiene on the one hand, and, on the other, a continuation of nineteenth-century medical ideas, techniques, and widespread fears of the tropical climate. During the 1890s, tropical medicine and hygiene developed as specialised professional fields of expertise. Yet despite substantial tropical medical advances during and after the 1890s, the disease environment of East and South-Central Africa remained associated with high mortality and morbidity for white settlers. White bodies continued to be viewed, in the popular mind, as profoundly vulnerable to the African environment. Pre-germ theory etiologies of disease and treatment techniques persisted within white settler communities.  This thesis studies the medical skills, ideas, and practices of white settlers in the region. It demonstrates that much of settlers’ medical care was performed by other settlers, positioning amateur treatment as crucial to colonial health. The discussion considers advice produced and disseminated through the flourishing print culture of African guidebooks and tropical medical handbooks; tropical outfitting; the translation of popular medical and hygiene advice into white settler practice; and the amateur treatment techniques (most importantly, quinine, alcohol, and disinfectant) and body protection methods that feature in memoirs and letters. Malaria forms a major theme in amateur treatment and prevention. The thesis also examines white settler women’s amateur medical practice in African communities, and the shifting patterns of agency and colonial hegemony within these intimate medical encounters. It argues that settlers’ medical practice displayed a distinctive set of techniques and ideas that adapted, re-worked, and re-interpreted professional medical advice. It concludes that settlers’ amateur medical practice formed an essential element of colonial medicine and bolstered British authority in the region.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Macdonald, Charlotte