Forms of Global Health

Alvan A. Ikoku

Forms of Global Health
Ikoku, Alvan A.
Thesis Advisor(s):
Edwards, Brent Hayes
Ph.D., Columbia University
English and Comparative Literature
Persistent URL:
My dissertation responds to recent calls for a critical medical humanities and a literature of global health by first investigating the function of literature in the development of earlier specialties in international health, with tropical medicine at the turn of the twentieth century as a key example. Scholarship in history and rhetoric of the period has described the formation of modern disciplines as a separation of scientific and literary textual traditions, predicated on the rise of distinct genres for the production of scientific knowledge, namely the scientific article, the case study, and the medical report. These genres were certainly used by key specialists of the tropics to establish a new rhetoric for description and to reduce the role of the imagination when dealing with human and geographic difference. Yet their writing on sub-Saharan Africa continued to signal a disciplinary disorder. Malaria, in particular, demanded the use of scene and figuration for the classification of space, ecologies, diseases and natives--rhetoric derived from literary genres, particularly the travelogue, memoir and novella. The result is a corpus I call malaria literature, one that includes works as disparate as Richard Burton's travel account, First Footsteps in East Africa (1856), Patrick Manson's textbook, Tropical Diseases: Manual of the Diseases of Warm Climates (1898), Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), AR Paterson's pamphlet, A Guide to the Prevention of Malaria in Kenya (1935) and Isak Dinesen's memoir, Out of Africa (1937). I read these five texts as part of an undisciplined library underwriting the construction of a modern medical specialty, and thus illustrate how the positivist turn in Africanist discourse became an incomplete effort to distance medical writing from traditions of poesis. Instead of a rupture between the literary and the scientific, I find a sustained epistemic complicity: a set of persistent knowledge-producing relations between both representational modes, where metaphors for space work with microbial notions of contagion to define disease and shape policy. Reading for such complicity, I argue, recasts tropical medicine as a confluence of scientific and literary traditions. It also complicates contemporary notions of medical literature developed after World War II, the birth of the World Health Organization, decolonization and the emergence of global health, and it enables the field of literary studies to enter into debates about the ethics of public health endeavors from a vantage point unique to the study of representations of disease.
Public health
Comparative literature
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Suggested Citation:
Alvan A. Ikoku, , Forms of Global Health, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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