When Africa was a German laboratory

Edna Bonhomme

Western scientists transformed Africa into a living laboratory during the sleeping sickness epidemics of the early 20th century. They should not be allowed to do the same now [while seeking the definitive pandemic vaccine.]

At the turn of the 20th century, epidemics of trypanosomiasis, or “sleeping sickness” as it is more commonly known, started to appear across Africa. A vector-borne parasitic disease causing apathy, slow movement, speech disorders, physical weakness and death, sleeping sickness raised alarm among European colonisers on the continent who feared that its spread could slow down the African workforce, and subsequently their colonial projects.

In 1906, Robert Koch, a renowned German scientist travelled to East Africa to find a “cure” for the disease. He set up a “concentration camp” for East Africans affected with the illness and started to “treat” them with Atoxyl – a reagent containing arsenic – even though it was known to cause pain, blindness and even death.

Today, Koch’s shining legacy lives on across Germany. The city of Berlin is full of plaques, monuments, and statues bearing his name and praising his medical accomplishments.

Koch is considered to be the founder of modern microbiology and one of the finest scientists of his time. He received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1905 for his research on tuberculosis and gained international acclaim for his discoveries.

Today, while Koch’s discoveries and accomplishments are well known and highly celebrated in Germany and across the world, his expedition to East Africa rarely gets a mention. So why are his colonial endeavors being ignored?

Koch’s advocates might argue that his notable contributions to the field of biology outweigh his brief expedition to [and experimentation in] East Africa. His decision to conduct medical experiments on Africans that were deemed too dangerous for Europeans had overreaching consequences that influence the way the Western scientific community treats Africans to this day.

Scientists in Germany came up with several remedies that they believed could be effective against sleeping sickness, as well as other illnesses widespread in Europe, such as syphilis. They tested these remedies on animals, [but not on whites in Europe.] In Africa, however, there was no comparable public resistance to human testing. Colonial authorities cared little about the…Africans.

Koch tested his disease remedies on Africans. Many of his ‘cures’ contained poisonous substances like arsenic.

Was Robert Koch a racist willing to conduct dangerous experiments on Black people for the benefit of Germany or a canny scientist who took risks to heal the sick?

We may never know the definitive answer to this question.

Koch established the Bugula sleeping sickness research camp and started “treating” up to 1,000 people a day with Atoxyl and other untested reagents. As historian Manuela Bauche explains, it is unclear how this many locals ended up in Koch’s camp, and whether they were informed of the likely effects the toxic “treatments” would have on their bodies.

By the time Koch left the continent in October 1907, three sleeping sick “concentration camps” had been established in German East Africa, and five such institutions were found in the German West African colonies, that is, present-day Togo and Cameroon.

By choosing to conduct [medical] experiments that they deemed too dangerous for European populations on Africans, they created and sustained racial hierarchies of experimentation. In light of the current international race to find a vaccine for COVID-19, these are issues that we should be wary of today.

In April 2020, two French doctors publicly stated that a potential vaccine for coronavirus should first be tested on people in Africa.

Their comments caused an international uproar. [Many expressed outrage at the very idea that Africa should be a testing lab for Europe.]

The French doctors’ suggestion, however, did not come out of the blue. Over a century ago, when faced with a deadly novel disease, European colonial officials did not think twice before using Africans as test subjects, without seeking their acquiescence or informing them of the risks.

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

Article shortened – please read the full piece at the location below. It is quite informative. – Ed


Related Posts