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Women and the Spread and Adaptation of Biomedical Knowledge in Uganda, 1897-1979

Dr Kathleen Vongsathorn

Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Medical Humanities (July 2015-June 2018)

'Women and the Spread and Adaptation of Biomedical Knowledge in Uganda, 1897-1979'

Using Uganda as a case study, this project aims to develop a better understanding of the role of women in positions of biomedical authority, to explore the implications of that role in largely patriarchal societies, and to discover what role gender played in the way that biomedicine and biomedical knowledge were perceived, transmitted, and adapted in Uganda. Women ran many of Uganda’s colonial biomedical institutions, staffed them in greater numbers than male European counterparts, and played a prominent role in the communication of biomedical knowledge.

My research takes a broad approach to understanding the role of gender in the perception, spread, and adaptation of biomedicine and biomedical knowledge in twentieth-century Uganda. I explore formal education around biomedicine, as it took place in hygiene and related classes in primary and secondary schools; in professional schools for nurses and midwives; and in organized health education campaigns and talks, such as antenatal clinics. I also explore informal education around biomedicine, for example through conversations between nurses and patients in hospitals, or in social groups that had health components, such as women's clubs, Scouting and Guiding, and church groups. I discuss not only the women who provided biomedical education, but also the ways in which that education was adapted by Ugandans, paying particular attention to the gender tensions and imbalances that surrounded these processes. The predominance of women in many areas of health education, particularly informal education, has been overlooked by historians, and with this research I aim to form a more complete understanding of the role of women in the development of biomedicine, understandings of biomedical knowledge, and promotion of health in Uganda.

I focus on the British Uganda Protectorate from 1897, when Uganda’s first biomedical hospital was opened and the first female medical missionary arrived, through decolonisation to 1979 when Idi Amin’s postcolonial dictatorship ended. Uganda is particularly valuable as a case study because its small size enables a broad scope of inquiry, integrating a variety of colonial medical institutions and female medical actors. Moreover, Uganda was a leader in the development of biomedicine in colonial Africa.