Hidden Figures: Informal Archives and the Making of Medical Worlds in Africa

‘Health has many faces’ poster, with illustrated figures of health

Image credit: ‘Health has many faces’ poster, Roy Billington collection, ODRP, Bodleian Libraries.


Hidden Figures: Informal Archives and the Making of Medical Worlds in Africa

Oxford Medical Humanities and Bodleian Libraries Workshop

Friday 5 May 2023, 2-3.30pm

Weston Library, Lecture Theatre

Free but registration is required.

Register via Eventbrite.


Much of our historical picture of medical worlds in Africa is shaped through the gaze of white, mostly European, men. From doctors, to research scientists, to colonial administrators, to funding bodies, the story of medicine in Africa is largely white and male. This workshop interrogates the forms in which medical archives are made and the voices in these archives. It looks at the ‘hidden figures’ of medical archives – whose voices do we not hear? Often it is the voices of African or other non-white people that are occluded. The voices of women, African and European, are equally difficult to find. Often responsible for maintaining the social networks upon which their husbands relied for promotions, collaborations, and recognition in the field, the wives of medical practitioners in Africa were a core component of how medical knowledge was produced. Equally, many European women, particularly in the latter years of colonialism, journeyed to African countries on their own, to be nurses, midwives, health practitioners, and even researchers. While some traces of their stories can be found, the stories of women of colour are even harder to find.

Informal archives, or archives of informal documentation, are key to elevating these voices. It is mostly in letters, diaries, journals, book manuscripts, and personal reflections that the voices of women can mostly clearly be encountered. In this, the workshop reflects on the making of medical archives: whose documents are archived? What kinds of documents are considered for deposit? In reflecting on the making of historical medical archives, it also asks how contemporary medical archives are being made: who is depositing medical material in archives? Where are they depositing it? What kinds of material are they depositing? And what does this mean for future research into medicine, whether historical or scientific?



Thandeka Cochrane is a Visiting Fellow at the Bodleian Libraries where she is looking at collection of documents from East and West Africa. Part of the ‘Oxford Development Records Project’ (successor to the Oxford Colonial Records Project), the collection houses 45 boxes of reflections and memoirs of colonial medical staff who were working in Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Zimbabwe between 1945-1965. As part of a larger project on the production of cancer data in Africa, Thandeka’s research into this collection focuses on the stories of women – asking what kinds of lives they lived and the role they played in the making of colonial medical worlds. She will reflect on the documents available at the Bodleian to look into these questions, as well as on the various medical archives she has worked with in Uganda, Kenya and South Africa.


Sloan Mahone is Associate Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Oxford, where she specializes in the history of psychiatry and the psychological sciences in Africa. Sloan will be speaking about a medical auxiliary and translator who had a very long and prominent career in Kenya from the 1950s.


Thomas Cousins is Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford, with a particular interest in health, especially nutrition and pharmaceuticals, in southern Africa. 


Medical Humanities Programme


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