Grammars of Progress and Pathology: A Recursive History of Africa, Cancer and ‘Diseases of Civilization’

Thandeka Cochrane and David Reubi, Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2023)

In this article, we trace the enduring presence of the grammars of progress that, in their different guises, from tropes of civilisation to vocabularies of modernisation and development, have powerfully shaped Anglophone medical imaginaries of cancer in Africa over the last hundred years. The story we tell is not one of Braudelian continuity. Rather, drawing on Ann Stoler and other scholars of the postcolonial, we tell a “recursive history” where grammars of civilisation and malignancy are endlessly re-activated, re-configured and re-combined with changing politico-scientific rationales, networks of expertise and modes of knowing. Specifically, we explore these repeated re-configurations and re-combinations from the British Colonial Office’s Cancer Inquiry of 1903 to the postwar geographical pathology research efforts on cancer aetiology and today’s Global Cancer Maps produced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.