The Lomidine files. Exploring the archives of a medical disaster in colonial Africa


On November 21st, 1954, 32 people died in the small village of Gribi, in the east of the French territory of Cameroon, following an injection of Lomidine. My talk is a micro-history of this medical catastrophe, based on fieldwork in the region and on the exploration of colonial and industrial archives. It retraces the strange fate of the drug, Lomidine. When it was launched after World War II, experts saw it as the ultimate solution to the epidemic of sleeping sickness. A single injection was supposed to protect against the disease for one year. While it was injected to more than 12 million people in the colonies of Africa, it was gradually discovered that the drug was inefficient and dangerous. The rise and fall of this wonder drug is a cautionary tale, not only of colonial mediocrity and hubris, but also, I will argue, of the arrogance of global health and of its technological fixes to health issues.

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).