Everything Has Always Been Terrible

Ugandan-Tanganyikan Sleeping Sickness Epidemic of 1900-1909

The Congo River basin hadn’t been a bustling place. It got bustling in the late 1800s, when riverboats started zipping around. When you go from not bustling to bustling, you get new diseases.

They got trypanosomiasis, the prettiest little terrible disease you’ve ever met.

Can we blame colonialism? Lately I’m in the mood to, but in fairness, people moving around the world and meeting for the first time spreads sickness, even when they’re both respectful and don’t rape or pillage.

Here’s the good news first: Doctors Albert and Jack Cook figured out how to diagnose sleeping sickness, using a blood sample. Sir Doctor Albert Cook (is that how it works? he’s a knight) helped establish the first modern hospital in East Africa.

Here’s the best news (I think): Sir Doctor Albert Cook trained people from Africa to be medical professionals. He helped start a medical school. He and his wife, a nurse, wrote a book on midwifery in the local language, Ganda.

That sounded so great, I was loving Cook.

But. Missionary doctors weren’t there to help locals, they were there to help other missionaries. Cook got to practice medicine with locals, but that wasn’t his original mission. They legit wanted him to preach and only doctor when white people were in trouble.

And. Cook and other white doctors were reluctant to train locals because then people wouldn’t have to come to them for treatment and a side of Jesus talk. They might prefer to just get treatment. (Mind you, Catholics get Jesus talk, too, because they aren’t Christians, except that they are in fact the original Christians, but now I’m way off track….)

Yes, when a patient who had not been helped by a Muslim doctor was helped by Cook, and Cook took full advantage to sell Christianity to said patient, as if one should choose religions by who has the best hospital.

Well, maybe that is a good reason.


I want you to know that Cook “was unable to resist the temptation to climb onto the rim of an extinct volcano” in what is now Kenya, on January 19, 1897.

Then in February, he began medical work in Mengo, in what is now Uganda. He had chloroform for surgeries. I can’t imagine how happy that made people. Can you imagine a world without anaesthesia of any kind? I don’t want to.

In August of 1897, there was political violence, and Cook removed 150 bullets from patients.

Sir Doctor Albert Cook, who momentarily restored my faith in the possibility in well-meaning do-gooders, and then disappointed me as people are wont to do.

Another bit of good news: there were some British and German people who figured out the tse-tse fly was the fucker who was spreading sleeping sickness. They also tried to kill those lil fuckers.

Tse-tse fly, who may be noble at heart, but we hate him.

German scientists Robert Koch found a treatment, atoxyl, but while atoxyl helped some patients.

The British had about 25,000 people evacuate to escape the spread of trypanosomiasis, which helped.

The bad news: everything else.

It’s colonialism.

But more specifically: many people received no treatment at all. Also, atoxyl blinded 20 people.

About 100,000 people died.

Let’s wrap it up with very good news: in 2020, there were only 800 reported cases of African sleeping sickness.


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