[British Central Africa] is a country where Europeans can live healthily by the careful practice of the rules of sanitation and hygiene.” – John Murray, Guide to Health in Africa (London: The African World, 1912).
Tropical medicine of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is remembered today primarily for its ground-breaking medical discoveries. The identification of the malaria parasite and its mosquito vector, the development of commercially synthesised and mass-produced prophylactic quinine, and advances in the treatment of sleeping sickness, for example, all helped to define tropical medicine as the epitome of modern medical science.
Tropical medicine was complemented by its companion discipline, tropical hygiene (a name that persists in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine). Far less remembered today, and often at odds with the ‘modern’ appearance of tropical medicine of the period, tropical hygiene aimed to manage the transition to and life of a European in the tropics.
This was done through a detailed regime of behaviour modification and protective equipment, with recommendations touching on everything from fabric choice through to alcohol consumption, sexual behaviour and hobbies. Such recommendations filled guidebooks and medical handbooks of the period.
Clothing choice was an integral part of tropical hygiene, with guidebook authors weighing in on issues such as the correct fabric blend for the tropics. The consequence of ignoring these strict instructions, guidebooks warned, could be disastrous. Tropical Trials: A Handbook for Women in the Tropics (1883), for example, described a woman venturing from home and finding herself in the sun without adequate head protection: “a serious illness, that often ends fatally, is the penalty that is paid.”
Writer Elspeth Huxley, who grew up on her parents’ coffee farm in Kenya’s ‘white highlands’ area near Thika, remembered going ashore at Port Said without a hat. A fellow traveller, Dr Ronald Burkitt (who had the largest private practice in interwar Nairobi) was horrified, warning her that she risked dementia, cardiac failure and renal occlusion, commenting sternly that the sun’s rays “softened the brain, rotted the guts and sapped the moral fibre”. In her autobiography, Huxley recalled a visitor to her family’s farm refusing to remove his hat while inside at lunch, so cautious was he of the tropical sun.
Specialist outfitters for the tropics became big businesses and offered a daunting array of protective equipment for new travellers. Traveller handbooks of the period are filled with advertisements for tropical outfitters.
Despite tropical medicine’s image as a thoroughly modern discipline, a look at protective clothing recommended in popular guidebooks around the turn of the century shows the persistence of older medical beliefs and equipment.
The ‘cholera belt’ or flannel cummerbund was recommended for bowel complaints in India. These complaints included cholera, hence the name, and the cummerbund remained a standard item of tropical attire long after the bacteria responsible for cholera was identified. John Murray’s guidebook, for example, recommended that “a stout flannel cummerbund around abdomen is useful” for those living in the tropics.
Ironically, much of the protective clothing for the tropics recommended by tropical hygiene experts and guidebooks was not only ineffective, but was also extremely hot and uncomfortable.
One of the most uncomfortable-looking recommended items was certainly the spine pad. Victorian medical wisdom considered the spine a point of particular weakness in the body. Guidebook writers for the tropics therefore often recommended extra protection for the spine from the tropical sun, in the form of a detachable pad, a few inches wide, often stuffed with cork shavings. This could be attached to clothing.
Menina Slade, who grew up in Kenya, recalled visiting the famous Dr Burkit: “He took one look at me and turned to my father saying, “With her colouring, she’ll never survive this climate – get her back home, Gordon!” To run no risk, a spine pad was added to my wardrobe, which had to be worn from 8 am to 4 pm, together with my topi, whenever I was out in the sun.”
There were also items of protective tropical clothing that were based on twentieth-century theories about climate, though they were no less uncomfortable than those dating from the nineteenth century. Scientists in the early twentieth century, most famously Louis Sambon, worked to develop sun-proof fabrics. The best known of these, ‘solaro’, was a wool fabric with a distinctive colour combination – neutral on top and red beneath – to repel the sun’s ‘actinic’ rays. Although ‘solaro’ fabric does not feature prominently in settler memoirs from the period, it appears in a few guidebooks.
Interestingly, some of these protective clothing items still continue to be worn today, although now totally divorced from their medical setting. Cummerbunds remain an option for black tie formal dress and solaro fabric is still manufactured, with the same distinctive colour scheme, to make men’s summer suits.
Julia Wells graduated with an MA in history from Victoria University of Wellington in 2016, previously having completed BA hons in history and a BSc in chemistry. Her masters examined home medical treatment in white settler communities in the British colonies of Kenya and Rhodesia, 1890-1939. She currently works in publishing at Bridget Williams Books.
Wells, Julia M. ‘Sun hats, sundowners, and tropical hygiene: Managing settler bodies and minds in British East and South-Central Africa, 1890–1939’, African Historical Review, 48.2 (2016), pp.68-91.
- Considine, Joan and John Rawlins (eds.). Childhood Memories of Colonial East Africa, 1920-1963 (Slyne-with-Hest: Bongo Books. 2002).
- Hunt, Leigh and Alexander Kenny. Tropical Trials: A Handbook for Women in the Tropics (London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1883).
- Huxley, Elspeth. Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya (New York: Viking, 1987)
- Murray, John. How to Live in Tropical Africa: A Guide to Tropical Hygiene and Sanitation (London: The African World Ltd., 1912).
- Murray, Samuel Stephen. A Handbook of Nyasaland (London: Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1922).