The latest Parasitology Paper of the Month is “Inside Doctor Livingstone: a Scottish icon’s encounter with tropical disease” by Michael Barrett and Federica Giordani.

When I came to Glasgow, in 1996, to take up a lectureship in Parasitology and Tropical Medicine many people wondered why I had chosen an environment so decidedly untropical as Scotland. The answer was simple: I had been offered a job working in what was unquestionably the world’s best place for Parasitology research.

Thinking about it more, I wondered why Glasgow was able to boast more Professors of parasite-related research than any other city on the planet. I began to research the history of Parasitology in my leisure time and gradually came to understand that Scotland had become dominant in this field during the nineteenth Century. The leading figure, it transpired, was Dr David Livingstone. I visited the Livingstone Memorial Centre, in Blantyre. The tenement block in which his family had lived has been preserved – a museum of African exploration and treasure trove of his belongings. Livingstone was born into poverty. His father wished him to join the clergy. Livingstone, however, wanted to be a scientist and persuaded his father that science and religion became compatible through medicine – healing the needy. He enrolled to study medicine at Anderson’s college in Glasgow. Back then in Scotland, unlike in England, anyone able to pay could be educated. Livingstone paid his own way, continuing to work in the mill in Blantyre. Eventually he went to work as a missionary in Southern Africa. As a doctor, he made a number of key discoveries, described in his highly popular writings.

Livingstone was followed by many other young Scottish doctors from lower to middle class backgrounds, who had to look elsewhere to start earning a living, as the better medical jobs in Britain remained with English doctors. So they went to the tropics, to man the clinics of the colonies of a growing British Empire. These intrepid Scottish doctors, educated in the tradition of the Enlightenment, found themselves in far flung places, investigating mysterious diseases. Equipped with microscopes, they began to find the causes of many of these.

For the International Congress of Parasitology held in Glasgow in 2006, Frank Cox, Lee Innes and I wrote a booklet describing these discoveries we entitled “The Scottish Encounter with Tropical Disease”, which had a great success.

Last year we decided to focus on a handful of the Glasgow-based icons of the era at a meeting organised by the Wellcome Centre of Molecular Parasitology at the University of Glasgow. We were asked to write a special issue for Parasitology on the topic, and, having read so much about Livingstone and his encounters with parasites, I thought this could be ideal.

Livingstone suffered bouts of malaria, described the devastating effect of tsetse flies and how tampan ticks transmitted a disease. He found worms in many animals and realised the impact of parasites on man. His love of bathing in Africa’s lakes almost certainly exposed him to schistosomiasis which most probably contributed to his death. So it was that I got together with Federica Giordani, an Italian Parasitologist also working in Glasgow, to write “Inside doctor Livingstone: A Scottish icon’s encounter with parasitic disease”.


Read the full article “Inside Doctor Livingstone: a Scottish icon’s encounter with tropical disease” in full for free until 31st August 2017.

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