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Black History MonthThe Sleeping Sickness Commission, Uganda

Lab attendants Ugandan lab assistants

In the early part of the 20th century, the Royal Society conducted a number of Sleeping Sickness Commissions in Uganda. Their mission was to investigate the distribution of tsetse-fly and sleeping sickness. This research was based from the camp and laboratory of Mpumu, Uganda (27 miles from Kampala).

The Commission employed a number of native Laboratory attendants during each of the Commissions, as well as working closely with local leaders. The attendants and field workers were involved in all areas of Bruce’s and his colleague’s research, leading to a large number of publications and reports detailing not only the distribution and cause of sleeping sickness (trypanosomes), as well as the identification of new diseases such as Muhinyo.

This evidences the often “hidden” presence of other ethnic groups participating in science and in the background of the Royal Society. In later years, researchers would comment on the continued support of fieldworkers – often only young boys – in collecting samples and carrying out research. Staff Sergeant A. Gibbons RAMC, whose field reports appear in the updates of the Commission, observed with a little dry humour how he and a team of 20 “fly boys” would tour the area of Entebbe; he on a bicycle while they ran alongside catching tsetse-fly with their nets.

Bruce and the other scientists and researchers undertook what we would consider very dangerous efforts to gather tsetse-fly samples. Despite their efforts, there were however disagreements and charges of ‘bad behaviour’ between the Commission’s lead scientists.

In the creation of special treatment centres (or “segregation camps”), “Indian” compounders (native Ugandans) were essential. This included an assistant to the Medical Officer who could “read and write and help both in the care of cases and in the keeping of records” (report from Aubrey D. P. Hodges of the Commission). In all, over 100 native assistants were involved in running these sites and the main laboratory (contributing everything from local intelligence to blood films from wild animals for testing).

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