Grammars of Progress and Pathology: A Recursive History of Africa, Cancer and “Diseases of Civilization”

Thandeka Cochrane and David Reubi, 2023, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 97, 3, 423-455.

The phrase “disease of civilization” and concomitant lexicons, such as “pathologies of modernization,” frequently surface across public and global health discourses. This is particularly the case within the framework of cancer research in Africa. In this article, the authors trace the emergence of these grammars of progress at the beginning of the twentieth century as a biomedical lens through which to analyze and frame cancer in Africa. Arguing with Ann Stoler for a recursive understanding of colonial and postcolonial history, the authors follow in detail the lexical shifts and recursions across the twentieth century, as these grammars move from diseases of civilization to development and modernization. In tracing these lexical shifts, they place them within the broader understandings of Africa and the African body as an other against which Euro-America frames itself.