London medical school benefited from colonial exploitation, report finds

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Robert Evans/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Robert Evans/Alamy

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) supported and directly benefited from the British empire’s exploitation and subjugation of colonised countries, according to a report on its history.

The study sets out how the school, founded in 1899, for decades received most of its funding from Britain’s colonies, particularly those in Africa, and colonial companies, but its medical research only benefited white people.

The original mission of the school was to reduce the costs to British taxpayers of replacing colonial officers who contracted, sometimes fatally, diseases such as malaria, rather than improving the health of colonised Indigenous populations, the report explains.

In doing so, the school, which was established and originally run in close cooperation with the government’s colonial office, strengthened British imperialism, said the report’s author, Dr Lioba Hirsch, of LSHTM’s Centre for History in Public Health.

Her study, commissioned by LSHTM, details how the development of “tropical medicine” at the school was shaped by white supremacy and racist pseudoscience such as eugenics, with senior staff publicly claiming black and brown colonised people were physically and mentally inferior.

As the main training centre for white doctors who went on to work in Britain’s colonies, the report notes how the school helped to propagate such racist notions.

It also found that the school curtailed the careers of the few medics of colour who studied there in its first few decades.

While many white students went on to become staff at LSHTM, no students of colour were recruited until the late 1940s and 50s.

For white students, studying at the school also became a pathway to serving in the West African Medical Staff, which from 1902 openly barred doctors of non-European descent.

Students of colour were also segregated in their clinical training. Records show that senior white staff expressed concern about them treating white patients in the 1920s.

The report notes that Joseph Chamberlain, the secretary of state for the colonies, encouraged colonial medical officers to send pathological specimens, materials and parasites to the school for teaching and research purposes, often without patient consent.

Furthermore, two London hospitals provided “native patients” from India, China, Japan and Goa for teaching purposes after a formal request by the school in 1940.

Hirsch also examined the harmful legacy of the school’s founder, Patrick Manson, who 22 years prior to its establishment deliberately infected a Chinese man, called Hin-Lo, with malaria. Few details of Hin-Lo’s life can be found in LSHTM’s archives, with different sources describing him as Manson’s servant, gardener or patient.

“The school, to my knowledge, has not done anything to recognise him, or any of the other research subjects who were involved in the school’s building of its own reputation and fame and accumulation of funds,” said Hirsch.

The researcher said she hoped the school would acknowledge the harmful legacy of its racist history for present-day staff and students of colour, as noted in an independent review last year that uncovered evidence of structural racism at the institution.

“I would like an acknowledgement that the racist structures that contributed to building the school and that turned it into the intellectual powerhouse that it is today are still at work,” she said, “and that the inequalities that they generate are also still at work even if they’re much less visible.”

Prof Liam Smeeth, the director of LSHTM, said: “This report shows the reality of LSHTM’s colonial past, and I apologise to all those who have been negatively impacted.”

Prof Anne Mills, the deputy director and provost at LSHTM, added: “We are committed to LSHTM being a place of anti-racist education, employment, research and partnerships.”