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Medical History

The Lomidine Files

The Untold Story of a Medical Disaster in Colonial Africa

by (author) Guillaume Lachenal

translated by Noémi Tousignant

Johns Hopkins University Press
Initial publish date
Oct 2017
History, Colonialism & Post-Colonialism, General, Public Health, Pharmacology
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    Publish Date
    Oct 2017
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Tracing the nightmarish effects of the "wonder drug" Lomidine in preventing sleeping sickness in Africa.

Winner of the George Rosen Prize by the American Association for the History of Medicine

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.

About the authors

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.

Guillaume Lachenal's profile page

Noémi R. Tousignant is an affiliate member of the Department of Social Studies of Medicine at McGill University and a guest researcher in history at the Université de Montréal. She is coeditor of Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Twenty-First Century Africa.

Noémi Tousignant's profile page


  • Winner, George Rosen Prize

Editorial Reviews

"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 bêtise, 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."

European Journal of Sociology

"Guillaume Lachenal's engaging body of work has long been on the radar of global scholars of public health and medicine in Africa. It is, then, both a true pleasure for readers and vital addition to Anglophone literature in the field that we now have his monograph, The Lomidine Files, in Noémi Tousignant's elegant translation from the original French... This is an innovative and sophisticated study that rewards sustained engagement. Though it will appeal to a wide audience interested in medical controversy or public health ethics, it is also an excellent addition to undergraduate and graduate syllabi in public health, the histories of science and medicine, world history, African studies, and development studies."

Bulletin of the History of Medicine

"This is a serious work that deserves serious contemplation; it will be of interest to historians from a variety of fields."