Exploring and responding to our colonial history

18 Feb 2021

As you may remember from my Presidential address in September last year, I am keen to use my Presidency to support RSTMH as we explore and address our colonial history.

This year, like last year, any global health conversation must acknowledge the context in which it is held: the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to decolonise curricula, and assessments of the extent to which colonial injustices have contributed to the foundation of today’s institutions.

Early days

What do we know about the early days of RSTMH?

We’re fortunate to have an extensive archive in the shape of the Transactions, often with corroborative cross-reports in The Lancet.

The Lancet reported the foundation of the "Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene" on 4 January 1907 at a meeting held at the Colonial Office. The Colonial Office had been split out of the War & Colonial Office in 1854 to oversee affairs in many, but not all of the British colonies, and assigned to the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The goal of tropical medicine

The formation of the Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene mirrored that of the London School of Tropical Medicine, founded in 1899 by Patrick Manson, then Chief Medical Officer to the Colonial Office, and Joseph Chamberlain, then Colonial Secretary. Chamberlain's "constructive imperialism" channelled Manson's expertise and ambition in this new project.

At the opening of the London School of Tropical Medicine, Manson outlined his aims for the School and its graduates.

“... the School strikes, and strikes effectively, at the root of the principal difficulty of most of our Colonies – disease. It will cheapen government and make it more efficient. It will encourage and cheapen commercial enterprise. It will conciliate and foster the native…”

The first cohort of physicians to graduate was told that it “shall not only leave its mark in the history of tropical medicine but shall also exercise an influence for the good in the development of the empire”.

Based on this, it seems hard to deny that the origins of the London School and the Society were steeped in the imperialism of the time – the aim of tropical medicine at the turn of the 19th century was firmly about supporting the economic expansion of European colonial empires.

Of course, bad colonial conduct in the economic sphere does not necessarily exclude good intentions towards colonial health. However, if the ultimate aim of tropical medicine is to enable the exertion of "expert" control over colonial empires, then these good intentions are vulnerable to stronger pressures, and to slipping into neglect.

These stronger pressures are sometimes now termed "structural violence", a scenario in which a social structure perpetuates inequity, thus causing preventable suffering.

Responses to a colonial heritage

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) has been undertaking a range of decolonising activities including a comprehensive review of learning materials to ensure that they reflect an inclusive approach and do not include racist or colonial perspectives and language, and establishing new a Decolonising Global Health lecture series.

Later this year LSHTM will share the findings of, and build on, the recommendations of a research project on the Colonial History of LSHTM

For the present Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene to achieve its mission – to be at the heart of the tropical medicine and global health community, providing the knowledge and networks, across all disciplines, that drive impact – it is vital that we identify if we are to any extent complicit in perpetuating structural violence.

The Board of Trustees has discussed approaches to this, and agreed a two-pronged approach.

Tamar Ghosh, RSTMH's Chief Executive, and the executive team are continuing and expanding their excellent work on Diversity and Inclusion – Tamar details this in a separate blog.

In parallel with this, a more academic exploration of RSTMH’s history will be conducted. We are now seeking individuals interested to help us take this academic exploration forward.

These individuals may be from within or beyond RSTMH, and will be selected to represent the diversity of RSTMH membership.

A new task team and advisory group

We envisage two main roles:

1. Colonial History Task Team member

This task team will design the approach the exploration will take, likely combining a survey of relevant online archives with an assessment of the current impact of our history on strategy, activities and image projected.

It is anticipated that this task team will convene through the course of 2021, with online meetings approximately every two months. Task team members with expertise in public health history, political science or global health anthropology will take on specific pieces of work relevant to their discipline through this period, with a likely average time commitment of 1–2 days per month.

Apart from the bi-monthly meetings, this time can be flexible around other commitments. Outputs of the Task Team are expected to include an academic article (to be submitted to the Transactions), and a set of recommendations to the Board.

2. Global Advisory Group member

Members of this group will be from and living and working in low-resource settings, and may be from any global health discipline. They will be called on periodically by the Task Team to bring their perspective to bear on issues flagged by the Task Team during their exploration.

We anticipate that members of this group will be called upon two or three times during 2021, and asked to join an online, facilitated group discussion for a maximum of 90 minutes.

I look forward to working with those interested and equipped to take on one of these roles.

If you would like to apply, please send a two-page CV indicating a) which of these roles you are interested in, and b) what makes you well-equipped to support the work, to g [dot] davey [at] bsms [dot] ac [dot] uk (Gail Davey) by 17:00 UK time on Friday 12 March.