Daily Editor Lillian Rountree manages to attend class and a talk at the same time at Maison Française’s “A Medical Disaster and its Aftermaths: The Quest for Sleeping Sickness Eradication in Colonial Africa.”

About a week ago, I was perusing the Maison Française website—as a French major does—and saw a link to this event, “A Medical Disaster and its Aftermaths: The Quest for Sleeping Sickness Eradication in Colonial Africa,” a talk with Guillaume Lachenal, a professor at Sciences Po, and moderated by one of my own professors, Thomas Dodman. I checked the time—2:15 to 3:30 pm on a Tuesday—and frowned: that’s when my class with Professor Dodman is. I was briefly amused by his audacity to simply skip class without telling us before my slow-working brain reminded me that, oh, right, that is class for the day. The talk, sponsored by the Columbia Maison Française (along with several other institutions), though open to the public, was primarily part of the course I’m taking with Professor Dodman (and French department chair Madeleine Dobie), “Pandemics in Francophone Literature and History.” If taking an entire class dedicated to the study of pandemics during a pandemic sounds like a terrible idea—I know. Don’t talk to me (but also, I do love this class).

Lachenal was invited to discuss the history of the drug lomidine (also called pentamidine, depending on who’s making it), which he researched in-depth for his book, translated into English as The Lomidine Files: The Untold Story of a Medical Disaster in Colonial Africa. The talk was structured to begin with a lecture from Lachenal on his findings in the book, delivered from a bizarrely all-wood room somewhere in France, and end with a 30-minute Q&A, after which, my classmates and I would be whisked away into a breakout room with Lachenal to ask the “real questions” (as my professor put it). 

Lachenal began his talk by addressing two misconceptions about his book and the Lomidinization campaigns that dominate it: first, that the story is not about vaccinations, but a prophylactic (a preventative medicine), and second, that calling it an “untold story” feels misleading—there is no such thing as an “untold story.” This second point, he emphasized, underscores one of the main themes of his book: the way the archives that he used to research this story preserved it as much as it silenced it.

Lachenal centered the first part of the lecture around November 1954, in Yokadouma, Cameroon, then under French colonial control. A Lominidization campaign was underway in the village, requiring that everyone come and register to receive an injection of lomidine, the drug hailed by colonial doctors as a “miracle” for its ability to prevent the spread of sleeping sickness, a potentially fatal epidemic disease spread by the trypanosoma parasite that causes neurological effects (like a sudden urge to sleep). In just the years since the end of World War II, lomidine had successfully brought what had been an epidemic resurgence of the disease down to near-eradication. It was the perfect story for colonial propaganda at a time where the necessity of colonialism was increasingly questioned: Look at what colonialism can do! Lomidine seemed to say. Look at the good it brings! In the colonial mind, Lomidine was a quick fix, both to the epidemic and to the growing unrest.

But, as Lachenal described, Yokadouma in November of 1954 was destined to, even if briefly, challenge this idea. After hundreds of individuals had been Lomidinized in the village, reports started trickling in to colonial health services of villagers with edema (swelling due to excess fluid) near the injection site (the buttocks). In more serious patients, there were signs of putrefaction and bursting of muscles. Though the edema was a common side-effect of lomidine—a drug that was known to also cause nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness—the critical conditions these patients were in was not. When colonial health services arrived with penicillin and other “miracles” of modern medicine over three days after the first reports, most victims were already past the point of help. There were 300 cases of what was ultimately diagnosed as gas gangrene, caused by the shoddy preparation of the drug and the use of contaminated water in the serum made on-site for injections. Of those 300 cases, 32 people died. 

What to make of this? Lachenal then discussed how the French colonialists sought to answer this question. The accident flew in the face of everything Lomidinization was supposed to be. But the colonial mindset and the archives it kept, Lachenal argued, were designed to take in a disaster like this, diagnose its causes, and churn out a neat, well-defined explanation. In the case of Yokadouma, the chaos of contaminated serum got pinned on the “lazy” African nurses charged with preparing and administering it; the suffering of the victims, despite the knowledge that the water was infected, was also put onto their practices to lessen the pain of the injection, such as administering a poultice. The French colonial doctors, once they arrived, were noble and brave in the face of the pain and death they witnessed; the African doctor who administered the majority of care is notably absent from reports. Through this careful archiving of the incident, Lachenal argued, the colonial order was restored. But as much as the reports try to promote this narrative, the very way that they were constructed—stamped confidential, kept tightly under wraps—suggest that the story was far more complicated, and far more driven by colonial insecurity and fear than the archive is willing to admit. 

Lachenal’s argument, both in his book and in his talk, is complicated: lomidine is a microcosm of the dying colonial power and of the mindset it necessitated. But lomidine, though dangerous, and not only for the ways its improper administration can harm, worked. In fact, it is still used as a treatment for sleeping sickness today, but exclusively as a treatment, not a prophylactic (the final plot twist is that, in fact, lomidine has no preventative efficacy against the disease whatsoever). In a similar way, Lachenal took care to emphasize that the colonial way of thinking wasn’t quite as black-and-white as it seemed. While harmful, of course, it was also not foolish; it was not blind; it was intentional. Colonial doctors knew the risks of medicines like lomidine and used them anyway, through a warped and racialized mindset logical to them but fundamentally unreasonable. If that makes your head spin a little—it still makes mine spin, too.

In the years following Yokadouma, Lomidinization fell out of favor—though even just how that happens is a massive oversimplification. To conclude his lecture, Lachenal explained how he came across Lominidization as part of research he worked on seeking to understand the correlation in Cameroon between date of birth and prevalence of Hepatitis C, a blood-borne disease. The prevalence was much, much higher in people born pre-1960—and, it seems, exposure to colonial medical care and mass medical campaigns like Lomindization, where syringes were regularly re-used without proper sterilization, could be exactly why. 

It was a fascinating talk, as enjoyable as it was depressing. At the end, Professor Dodman told us that usually, at the Maison Française, these kinds of things conclude with everyone mingling with a glass of wine (nevermind that it was 4 pm). I could have used it after such a reminder of the complex, uncategorizable ways that colonialism has shaped our world. The legacy of colonial medicine continues on. Lachenal’s book was blacklisted by the French National Academy of Medicine for its critiques of colonial medicine; when asked about this, he said that some ex-colonial doctors had verbally confronted him at conferences, furious that he would depict their work this way. 

One attendee inquired what became of lomidine after the campaigns ended, and Lachenal responded that it found a second life as a treatment for AIDS-induced pneumonia. The drug manufacturers, now looking not at sleeping sickness but the differently-stigmatized HIV, promptly hiked up prices in response.

Image via of totally-not colonial propaganda via Wikimedia Commons