‘Small bite, big threat’

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World Health Day 2014 (7 April) is about raising awareness of vector borne diseases – diseases carried by mosquitos, flies, ticks and bugs. In the 1980s the Wellcome Trust Film Unit produced a series of films about the history of sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), a disease carried by the tsetse fly.

The pilot film for the series, African Sleeping Sickness (14 min.), traces the history of the disease from the 14th to the 19th century in a series of images:

The second of the films, The Gambian Case (22 min.) is a rather plodding dramatic reconstruction of the discovery in 1901 of trypanosome parasites in the blood of an Irish sailor suffering from the early stages of sleeping sickness. The discovery was made by Dr Michael Forde, a colonial medical officer at Bathurst in the Gambia, and Dr Joseph Everett Dutton of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. This was the first time that trypanosomes had been detected in the blood of a European, and helped to dispel the belief that the disease only affected Africans.

The third film, Entebbe Encounter (37 min.) is another dramatic reconstruction about an outbreak of sleeping sickness in Uganda that rapidly assumed epidemic proportions.

In the spring of 1902, the Royal Society sent a small scientific commission to Entebbe to investigate the cause of the disease. The film depicts the circumstances leading up to Dr (later Sir) Aldo Castellani’s (1877-1971) discovery of trypanosomes in the cerebro-spinal fluid of sleeping sickness victims and his difficult ‘encounter’ with Colonel David Bruce (who identified the tsetse fly as the vector agent) at Entebbe in February 1903.

A fourth film, the Sleep of Death (1 hr 2 min.), is a lavish dramatisation of some of the key figures and events involved in the discovery of the cause of African sleeping sickness as seen through the eyes of Sir Patrick Manson (1844-1922), founder of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Dr Louis Sambon (1865-1931). The film includes material from both The Gambian Case and Entebbe Encounter and was awarded a silver medal at the New York International Film and TV Festival in 1990.

These films are now historical documents in their own right and interesting for their historiographical approach as well as the information they contain about the history of sleeping sickness. The Sleep of Death, for example, frames the discovery of trypanosomes in the blood in terms of the scientific rivalries and medical careers of its key players.

Other digitised films related to sleeping sickness in the Library collections include:

All the digitised films are free to embed, download and use under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

Author: Lalita Kaplish is assistant web editor at the Wellcome Library.

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish is Web Editor at the Wellcome Library. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter @LalitaKaplish.

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