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Pasteurian tropical medicine and colonial scientific vision


The Pasteurian scientist Charles Nicolle spent most of his scientific career at the Institut Pasteur de Tunis. He produced an idiosyncratic archive exploring questions of scientific genius and his concern with the ‘traps’ set by scientific rationality. This paper considers the major visual themes of Nicolle’s diverse archive—myopia, exposure and illumination—as elements of colonial scientific visuality. I then consider this way of seeing in relation to the mass of medical photographs and scientific images circulating in Pasteurian publications. I argue that as well as indexing and demonstrating colonial scientific rationality these images encode the hidden, shadowy, indeterminate and esoteric forms of colonial scientific knowledge, a negative poetics, in addition to their public status as colonial, communicative, technological and epistemic instruments.

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  1. The Institut Pasteurs in the Maghreb have been closely examined by historians, most recently in a special edition of the journal Dyanmis (see Martínez 2016a). Historians have focused on the political and institutional histories of the Institutes (Moulin 2004), their conflict with North African and other colonial authorities over the imposition of hygienic norms (Martínez 2016b), and their cooperation with other elements of the colonial state to effect a “Pasteurisation” of North African society (Strachan 2006).

  2. One exception is Annick Opinel’s discussion of the clinical picture of parasitic disease that includes a discussion of still photography and depictions of sleeping sickness on scientific film (Opinel 2006, 2008). Also discussing parasitology, in this case in Algeria, Claire Fredj notes the repetition in the Annales de l’Institut Pasteur d’Algerie of photographs of the gestures of care associated with the treatment of malaria—spleen palpitations, blood taking and distribution of quinine (Fredj 2016). In The Pasteurisation of France Latour does briefly mention photography as one of a range of techniques of visual inscription which serve a negative function: visual traces of scientific practice are the ‘materials that are forgotten the materials that are used to make thought intangible’ (Latour 1993, p. 218).

  3. Horgmo (2015) argues that the use of mirrors has historically been particularly closely associated with the photography of conflict wounds.


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The author acknowledges the support from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement No. 336564. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers of this paper for their comments which greatly improved the final draft. I am particularly grateful to the reviewers for encouraging me to reconsider the reproduction of the photographs under discussion.

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Correspondence to Branwyn Poleykett.

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Poleykett, B. Pasteurian tropical medicine and colonial scientific vision. Subjectivity 10, 190–203 (2017).

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  • Medical photography
  • Institut Pasteur
  • Subjectivity
  • Visuality