The British Empire Library

Insect Man: Fight Against Malaria in Africa

by Alec Smith

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by C. C. Draper (Kenya, Tanzania 1952-59, Nigeria 1960-63 London School o f Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 1968-87)
The author of this book, as he points out at the end, spent 36 years working overseas, with a notable 30 of them in Africa, mostly in the field. Armed with a first class Honours degree from Birmingham and PhD from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine he joined the erstwhile Colonial Medical Research Service in 1950. His first posting was as entomologist to the newly founded East African Filariasis Research Unit in Mwanza, Tanganyika, which was administered by the East African High Commission, and he spent three rigorous years on Ukara Island in Lake Victoria working on the mosquito vectors of filariasis, a very prevalent local infection. After a home leave, when he got married, he went for five years, under conditions only slightly less rigorous than on Ukara, as entomologist to the Taveta Pare Malaria Scheme, a sucessful experimental malaria control project in North Eastern Tanganyika and Southern Kenya.

The largest section of the book - 77 pages, which is over one third of the whole - is devoted to work and life in the pleasant town of Arusha in northern Tanganyika/Tanzania where Dr Alec Smith spent 13 years from 1959 at the CIRU (Colonial Insecticide Research Unit) which, after the East African territories became independent in the 1960s, changed its name to TPRI (Tropical Pesticides Research Institute). With a total staff of 135 in 1966, including many expatriate scientists who were slowly being replaced by locals, the TPRI was concerned with trials of new pesticides for control of disease-carrying insects and agricultural pests. For his last six years there Dr Smith acted as Director until he retired in 1972 to make way for a Tanzanian director whom he had been training. He emphasises how he "always had concern for the environmental aspects of pesticides usage and had instigated several field studies to evaluate the potential use of environmentally acceptable insecticides such as naturally occurring pyrethrins and certain synthetic pyrethroids". This section has many entertaining asides about domestic, social and sporting activities in and around Arusha, in which Alec and Irene Smith were always very active.

As the author says, he found it difficult to be professionally inactive and in March 1979 readily accepted an offer of employment by the World Health Organisation (WHO). After eight months in Geneva, which included visits to Kenya and Nigeria, he was posted for three years to investigate an outbreak of malaria in the Northern Transvaal from where it had been absent for 20 years. Having set up a surveillance service and trained staff to run it, the Smiths were then sent to Benin in Eastern Nigeria with the difficult task of setting up a malaria investigation programme in the rather unsettled conditions in Nigeria at the time. After three years Dr Smith returned to WHO headquarters in Geneva where, until he retired in 1986, he was involved in many different aspects of mosquito control, including being one of the instigators of the use of bed-nets impregnated with insecticide, which has been one of the very few advances in malaria control in recent years. In 1982 he was jointly awarded the Ademola Medal by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 'for outstanding achievements in health in the tropics'.

Written in a colloquial style this book is easy to read. It will be enjoyed by many but will be of particular interest to those who lived and worked in Africa, especially East Africa, during the years of change from 1950 until the present.

British Empire Book
Alec Smith
The Radcliffe Press


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