Dr. Julia Cummiskey published an article entitled “‘An Ecological Experiment on the Grand Scale’: Creating an Experimental Field in Bwamba, Uganda, 1942–1950” in the March 2020 (111, no. 1) issue of Isis, A Journal of the History of Science Society. The article is available to download for free for one month at the above link.
Dr. Cummiskey did a Q&A about the article on the Isis Facebook page, which is reproduced below.
1. Your essay focusses on the Yellow Fever Research Institute. Could you briefly describe what drew you to the history of this organization and your process for finding relevant archival sources?
Pretty early in my graduate training I came across a profile of the Uganda Virus Research Institute (Sylvester D. K. Sempala, “Institute Profile: The Uganda Virus Research Institute,” Trends in Microbiology 10, 7 (2002): 346-8). At the time, I was looking for a good dissertation topic and I thought that the history of the Institute might suggest some paths I could follow. But when I looked further, I found there was actually very little written about the history of the Institute, even though it had been a major site of virus research during the 20th century. Realizing that it offered an unusual opportunity to research the trajectory of biomedical research in the changing context of colonial, post-colonial, and present-day Uganda, I decided it was something I wanted to pursue. I was fortunate to find a wonderful set of colleagues and partners at the UVRI and at one of its affiliated projects, the Rakai Health Sciences Program who helped me secure research clearances, provided oral history interviews, and gave me access to the UVRI’s archives. Beyond that, I was very fortunate to secure funding from the Rockefeller Archive Center, the Social Sciences Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, and a Fulbright student fellowship to allow me to travel to archives in NY, Scotland, London, Geneva, and Uganda to track down correspondence, reports, diaries, and other sources deposited by scientists who had worked at the UVRI (originally the Yellow Fever Research Institute, founded in 1936) over the years. I would say my process was fairly haphazard at first—I did a lot of literature searches for the name of the institute (which changed in 1950 to the East African Virus Research Institute and again in 1978 to the Uganda Virus Research Institute), or just for “Entebbe” and virus. Then, I followed up the names of the individuals who were authors of papers on work done at the institute. That worked really well to get sources related to the scientists who achieved the status of published author. But getting at the stories of the many other people who were involved but never named in publications was more complicated.
Haddow first traveled to Kenya on a Medical Research Council junior fellowship to study mosquito control strategies. This was a major concern of Great Britain and her allies as they dealt with war-related mobilization of troops into parts of Africa and Asia with known mosquito-borne diseases. He joined the Yellow Fever Research Institute in 1942 as an entomologist, where he continued to study mosquito distribution and behavior with a specific focus on understanding yellow fever transmission. He became acting director of the EAVRI in 1952 and permanent director in 1953 and worked there until he decided to leave Uganda in 1965. He returned to his native Scotland and worked at the University of Glasgow until he retired in 1978. He died later that year. Haddow was an amazing character who left a wealth of sources, published and unpublished, about his thoughts on working in Uganda, his passion for entomology, and his many other interests. He was a real Renaissance man, who published on everything from the way indigenous people in the Rwenzori Mountains communicated using whistling to bagpiping in the Scottish highlands. At times, I actually found it challenging to shift the focus away from him to the larger set of people involved in the research because he had such a compelling voice in the archival material. In the book I’m working on, I deal more with a variety of other people at work in the same period who had different perspectives and experiences.
3. You mention that Haddow’s work was useful for British colonial aims of better understanding and controlling the area. Did the African assistants who worked with Haddow and the YFRI equivocate any tension between better understanding a local disease yet contributing to colonial rule?
It has been a real challenge to get at the experiences, understandings, and even actions of the African assistants who worked with Haddow. From the perspective of a history of science and medicine, working primarily with archival and published sources from the period when Haddow was in Uganda, I have been limited in what I can conclude about how the African assistants in Bwamba viewed their work or interpreted its consequences. My sources from this period are almost exclusively authored by Europeans and North Americans, and they are not reliable sources for understanding the experiences of African assistants, even when they do speculate about them. (As a side note, yellow fever really wasn’t understood as a local disease. One of the challenges researchers faced is that local people didn’t report getting sick with yellow fever—the question was whether sufferers just “mistook” it for another kind of fever or whether they didn’t experience the same symptoms that Europeans, Americans, and West Africans experienced.) I think a historian pursuing a different set of questions and employing other methods could write a fascinating history of how people in Bwamba experienced and understood the work done by Haddow and his colleagues. But that was outside the scope of my project. That said, in my research on later periods of the Institute’s work, I have much more material that allows me to analyze the ways that Ugandan workers at the Institute from animal attendants to laboratory technicians, field workers, and senior scientists approached and understood their work.
4. The YFRI remade Bwamba to better serve as both laboratory and field station. How have modern epidemiologists used this approach and is there a limit to this approach as diseases transverse national boundaries?
One of the things that is interesting to me about the work that Haddow and others were doing on yellow fever in the 1940s and 1950s is that they were very aware that disease did not respect political boundaries. The YFRI was established because new evidence suggested that the old ideas about where yellow fever existed were not correct. Places previously understood to be safe from yellow fever were suddenly perceived as vulnerable. Much like we do today, Haddow and his peers believed they were living in a period of increased exposure to global disease transmission, particularly with the rise of commercial air travel.
In many ways, I think the tension between the drive to generate generalizable data and the need to account for the very particular conditions of a study site or population are pretty similar today. Today’s epidemiologists are, I think, more likely to try to quantify the limits of generalizability and to use tools like multivariate regression to “control” for the particular characteristics of their study sites and populations. But the fundamental problem that a well-controlled experiment does not, by definition, mimic real-world conditions remains. Experts on international or global health that travel from one part of the world to another still rely on local experts who can inform them on the human and animal behaviors, the environmental conditions, and the social and political contexts that all influence disease risk and transmission.