"Something A Little Bit Tasty": Women and the Rise of Nutrition Science in Interwar British Africa


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Widespread malnutrition after the Great Depression called into question the role of the British state in preserving the welfare of both its citizens and its subjects. International organizations such as the League of Nations, empire-wide projects such as nutrition surveys conducted by the Committee for Nutrition in the Colonial Empire (CNCE), sub-imperial networks of medical and teaching professionals, and individuals on-the-spot in different colonies wove a dense web of ideas on nutrition. African women quickly became the focus of efforts to end malnutrition due to Malthusian concerns of underpopulation in Africa and African women’s role as both farmers and mothers. Currently, the field focuses either on the history of nutrition science in Britain specifically, such as David Smith’s Nutrition in Britain: Science, Scientists, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, or broadly on the history of European scientists of all disciplines in Africa, such as Helen Tilley’s Africa as a Living Lab. Gendered medical histories in Africa tend to have a narrow geographical focus and a broad chronology, such as Henrietta Moore and Megan Vaughan’s Cutting Down Trees: Gender, Nutrition, and Agricultural Change in the Northern Province of Zambia, 1890-1990. This work enlarges the field both by linking British nutrition science to nutrition science in Africa, and by analyzing gendered colonial policy across space rather than across time. The dissertation examines the process by which colonial officials came to pin their hopes of ending malnutrition on the education of African women. Specifically, this project analyzes nutrition surveys from the League of Nations and the CNCE, as well as articles and pamphlets circulated by medical and education experts. Using circular dispatches from the Colonial Office and CNCE, meeting minutes from the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies, annual education reports, and medical journal articles, this work zooms out to show the global context of the interest in malnutrition and the scientific advancements of nutrition. Then, the dissertation zooms in to illustrate how those global concerns impacted women in Southern Nigeria, who used colonial education for their own goals of professional advancement or marrying up rather than ending malnutrition. I argue that African women’s education transitioned from under the control of missions to the control of the state as a result of the proposed solutions of colonial nutrition surveys. Furthermore, I argue that, as a priority of the colonial state, the pedagogy of African women’s nutrition education became its own kind of colonial experiment as educators and students disagreed on the best means of relating the new knowledge of nutrition. In conclusion, the colonial state increasingly controlled African women’s education by the end of the 1930s, and this focus on altering individual African women’s food habits via education allowed the colonial state to take action to solve malnutrition without altering the colonial economy from which they profited. State-controlled education attempted to create a new kind of colonial subject concerned with science, which revealed the limits of state intervention and provided a new arena for African women to shape their own futures.

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University of Kentucky


Lexington, Kentucky