Bioethics Blogs

Book review: Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Africa by Damien Droney

Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Africa

Paul Wenzel Geissler, Guillaume Lachenal, John Manton, and Noémi Tousignant, editors

Intellect Ltd./University of Chicago Press, 2016, 256 pages, 500 color plates


The first reaction to an encounter with Traces of the Future: An Archaeology of Medical Science in Africa is likely to be a set of questions. Firstly, “what is it?” This 7×9” hardcover book, brimming with pleasingly displayed full-color photographic contributions by 18 authors, resembles a museum exhibit as much as it does a conventional academic volume. The contributing authors themselves describe it as a “sutured assemblage” (12) and a “fragmentary and idiosyncratic” (27) result of collaborative research presented in “a book-like package” (12).

Traces of the Future is the remarkable product of a long-term collaborative research project by a group of anthropologists, historians, and photographers. It examines the legacies of twentieth century biosciences in Africa in five historical sites of transnational medical science. Each of these sites manifested dreams of medical modernity and social progress characteristic of the twentieth century, dreams which are unevenly remembered in these sites today. The book is driven by the diverse research objects that it assembles. Beyond some rewarding orienting essays, the bulk of the book appears as a profusion of material. Each chapter includes an array of images, including fieldwork snapshots, archival documents, blueprints, manuscripts of musical scores, and unearthed beakers. These images are interspersed with timelines, interview transcripts, fieldnote excerpts, quotes from academic literature, and essays.

It also features haunting professional art photographs of Amani Hill Research Station by Evgenia Arbugaeva and Mariele Neudecker.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.