The History and Afterlives of a Medical Utopia: Exploring the Remains of Colonial Medicine in the Afro-Pacific World


During World War II, a French colonial doctor named Doctor David received full and exclusive authority on the entire region of the Upper-Nyong, in the forests of East-Cameroon. His aim was to conduit a real-life “experiment” to transform and reinvent native society through a radical form of social medicine. My lecture will retrace the story of this strange biopolitical experiment, weaved with the biography of its main actor, Dr David, who became known as King David on the polynesian island of Wallis, before he became « Emperor » of East Cameroon. This utopian/dystopian attempt at social reform left many traces in Cameroon and in Wallis – songs and memories, ruined buildings and abandonned plantations. Bridging Africa and the Pacific, the imperial past and the neoliberal present, this history can be read as a fable – on utopia and megalomania in colonial governance, on power and powerlessness, on medical hubris, and on the writing of history among remains of Empires and development.

Guillaume Lachenal is associate Professor in history of science at the Université Paris Diderot. He is working on the history and anthropology of biomedicine in Africa. He has recently published The Lomidine Files. The untold story of a medical disaster (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and Le médecin qui voulut être roi. Sur les traces d’une utopie coloniale (Seuil, 2017).