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Books, Journals, New Media
October 6, 1999

Colonial Physician: The Physician and the Slave Trade: John Kirk, the Livingstone Expeditions, and the Crusade Against Slavery in East Africa

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorJonathan D.EldredgeMLS, PhD, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


Not Available

JAMA. 1999;282(13):1293-1294. doi:10.1001/jama.282.13.1293-JBK1006-2-1

This book discusses little about parasitic disease in British Africa, and it is not properly a history of late 19th-century colonial health policy. However, as the author has demonstrated in this engaging account, it is a much needed biography of Sir John Kirk, MD (1832-1922), who contributed much to the eradication of his era's most egregious form of human parasitism, the slave trade.

In the years before and after receiving his MD from Edinburgh University in 1854, this native Scot's interests embraced botany, geology, chemistry, geography, history, photography, running the empire, and rigorous outdoor activities. Because of talents displayed even as a medical student, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Botanical Society. Immediately following graduation, he went on to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he joined Joseph Lister and only five others in a residency year. Following the outbreak of the Crimean War, he soon became one of 50 chosen from 700 volunteers to reinforce the British Medical Corps at Istanbul. Because Kirk and the other new arrivals were fresh from residencies, the often poorly trained attending surgeons jealously guarded their own domains, which yielded idle assignments for the newcomers. Kirk did not waste this moment, collecting and sending specimens to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London, having one fungus subsequently named Muscari latifolium. After repeated protests, Kirk and others were reassigned to the Erenkevi Hospital in the Dardanelles, where he further observed that infectious disease, not bullets, produced most cases under their care. Given these circumstances, upon his return to England, Kirk, like many others, doubted his contributions to resolving the conflict concluded by treaty in 1856.