Pharmaceuticals and Modern Statecraft in South Africa: The Cases of Opium Thalidomide and Contraception

by Julie Parle, Rebecca Hodes and Thembisa Waetjen

In this audio clip, Thembisa Waetjen and Rebecca Hodes discuss their article, co-authored with Julie Parle, which explores a century of pharmaceutical politics through a close historical account of three medicaments. In African contexts, historical research necessarily engages with experiences of colonisation/decolonisation, which have shaped local and global relations of power, culture, knowledge, and the body, as well as ideas about health, healing and harm. One of those histories has been remarkably under-researched: the use of pharmaceuticals. Parle, Hodes, and Waetjen use their own distinct but overlapping projects to demonstrate the value of historical investigation for developing what they term ‘Pharmaceutical Modernities’ within the broader Medical Humanities. They reflect on the importance of historical methods for understanding diverse practices of medicines regulation and adaptation among consumers, providers, state authorities, contract packaging service and drug manufacturers. Waetjen traces the origins and changing nature of opiate consumption, regulation and addiction in the early twentieth century; Parle charts the ‘three phases’ of the teratogen thalidomide in southern Africa; and Hodes considers medicalised contraception and pharmaceutical, racial and gendered agendas in the post-colony. Chemical medicines offer a crucial focus for considering the changing landscape of vitality, consumption, modernity, and biopower. As argued here, we must have greater exchange between those who develop and deploy pharmaceuticals and humanities scholars who seek to understand their impacts across time. The authors invite readers to approach their paper as a starting point for further research about the pharmaceutical humanities in Africa.

To hear Thembisa Waetjen and Rebecca Hodes discuss this article, please follow this link to Soundcloud:

Read the full article on the Medical Humanities Journal website.

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