Black Death, White Medicine: Bubonic Plague and the Politics of Public Health in Colonial Senegal, 1914-1945

By Burrill, Emily | African Studies Review, September 2003 | Go to article overview

Black Death, White Medicine: Bubonic Plague and the Politics of Public Health in Colonial Senegal, 1914-1945


Burrill, Emily, African Studies Review


Myron Echenberg. Black Death, White Medicine: Bubonic Plague and the Politics of Public Health in Colonial Senegal, 1914-1945. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2002. xviii + 303 pp. Glossary. Illustrations. Photographs. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. $69.95. Cloth. $28.00. Paper.

Black Plague, White Medicine is a compelling monograph that implicates the political career of Biaise Diagne, the outbreak of World War I, and shifting urban landscapes in the bubonic plague's development in twentieth-century Senegal. Myron Echenberg demonstrates successfully that the history of colonial public health in Africa is embedded in a larger history of struggles for power on local, metropolitan, and global levels. The book is a welcome addition to the social history of medicine and health in Africa, a field Echenberg acknowledges as "a burgeoning industry" (5), yet one that is marked by the conspicuous absence of work on the bubonic plague in Africa. Echenberg also makes the point that with a few article-length exceptions, French colonial medicine has been neglected in historical research-although Eric Silla's book on leprosy in Mali, People Are Not the Same (Heinemann, 1998), is a recent notable exception.

Echenberg leads the reader through three distinct sections, dealing respectively with the 1914 outbreak in Dakar and its developments through the end of World War I, the interwar social and economic impact of the plague, particularly in regions such as Rufisque and St. Louis, and the last years of the epidemic and its retreat at the end of World War II.

Part 1 is the strongest, containing rich primary material as well as Echenberg's most forceful arguments. Here he underscores the significance of urban expansion to the course of the epidemic, arguing that the politics of the colonial city, rather than epidemiological concerns, influenced responses to the plague. The French colonial administration responded to the 1914 outbreak by enforcing curfews for Africans and segregating the city into African and French quarters, arguing that Africans spread the disease through poor hygiene. …

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