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Lomidine Files: The Untold Story of a Medical Disaster in Colonial Africa

by Guillaume Lachenal Johns Hopkins University Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 240 pages
AU$75.00 NZ$77.39
Product Status: Available in Approx 14 days
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After the Second World War, French colonial health services, armed with a newly discovered drug, made the eradication of sleeping sickness their top priority. A single injection of Lomidine (known as Pentamidine in the United States) promised to protect against infection for six months or longer. Mass campaigns of "preventive lomidinization" were launched with immense enthusiasm across Africa. But the drug proved to be both inefficient and dangerous. Contaminated injections caused bacterial infections that progressed to gangrene, killing dozens of people. Shockingly, the French physicians who administered the shots seemed to know the drug’s risk: while they obtained signed consent before giving Lomidine to French citizens, they administered it to Africans without their consent—sometimes by force.


In The Lomidine Files, Guillaume Lachenal traces the medicine’s trajectory from experimental trials during the Second World War, when it was introduced as a miracle cure for sleeping sickness, to its abandonment in the late 1950s, when a series of deadly incidents brought lomidinization campaigns to a grinding halt. He explores colonial doctors’ dangerously hubristic obsession with an Africa freed from disease and describes the terrible reactions caused by the drug, the resulting panic of colonial authorities, and the decades-long cover-up that followed.


A fascinating material history that touches on the drug’s manufacture and distribution, as well as the tragedies that followed in its path, The Lomidine Files resurrects a nearly forgotten scandal. Ultimately, it illuminates public health not only as a showcase of colonial humanism and a tool of control, but also as an arena of mediocrity, powerlessness, and stupidity.


1. The Wonder Drug
2. Experiments without Borders
3. The New Deal of Colonial Medicine
4. The Spectacle of Eradication
5. Lomidine, the Individual, and Race
6. Good Citizens and Bad Brothers
7. Yokadouma, Cameroon, November–December 1954
8. "We Cried without Making a Palaver"
9. The Misfires of the Imperial Machine
10. The Swan Song of Eradication
11. How the Drug Became Useless and Dangerous
List of Abbreviations and Acronyms

"I urge medical scientists, health activists, public health experts, executives of multinational pharmaceutical companies, public officials of affected countries, and officials of international organizations, bilateral development agencies and philanthropic organizations'not to mention the sociologists, anthropologists, historians and others who study them'to read this book. And read it carefully. It cannot tell us how to avoid the catastrophic outcomes of b+¬tise, but it should have a humbling effect, as it offers a painful remainder of the costs to others'not of evil, but of simple passivity, stupidity and arrogance."

Guillaume Lachenal is an associate professor in the history of science at the University Paris Diderot. He is the author of Le médecin qui voulut être roi: Sur les traces d’une utopie coloniale.