Sep 21, 2021

Mawazo Writing Africa

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Racist brain research at Mathari Hospital that shocked the world

While Dr. FW Vint, the government pathologist, claimed that the mental performance of an adult African was similar to that of a 7- to 8-year-old European boy, Dr. Henry Liang Gordon, the medical officer in charge at Mathari Mental Hospital in Nairobi, controversially came to the conclusion that European education is “dangerous” for Africans with poor mental abilities.

According to Dr. Sloan Mahone, a specialist in the history of psychiatry at Oxford University, Kenya, provided the perfect setting for this dubious project. Mathari became a laboratory for all sorts of bizarre experiments examining mentally ill Africans, supposedly to determine the intelligence of blacks and draw conclusions from them.

These were some of the worst cases of scientific racism ever that have ever occurred from any other part of the British Empire, according to some scholars and declassified documents. The aim was to use racial science to justify the alienation of Africans in Kenya and at the same time to strengthen the building of white supremacy.

European settlers

At the turn of 1900, Kenya became became the home of European settlers who could not resist the fascination of the vast, fertile land and the simple life that were brought to them by colonial officials in Kenya.

To encourage Europeans to emigrate to Kenya, has the colonial state’s main objective was to create a profitable British colony that would also produce goods that met the requirements of the British Empire. To achieve this, however, the colonial government also needed skilled African workers. But there was a dilemma.

While the education of Africans was key to achieving the government’s goals, it was also seen as a threat to European rule. This fear was heightened by the growing agitation for equal opportunities and rights in African political associations. The fact that these associations were headed by Africans with ecclesiastical missions showed the settlers the danger – in the eyes of some colonialists – of raising an African.

In 1922, associations such as the Young Kavirondo Association and Young Kikuyu were founded Association have been at the forefront of promoting the educational, social and economic advancement of the indigenous people. In 1928, the Kikuyu Central Association, founded in 1924, sent its General Secretary Jomo Kenyatta to London to bring grievances to the African population in Kenya, including education and taxes, to the Colonial Office Engage in education of Africans. It was suggested, however, that African education should be provided in a manner appropriate to African conditions. This was highlighted in a memorandum on African Education drawn up by the Advisory Committee on Native Education, which states that “Education should be adapted to the mindsets, skills and occupations of different people and, as far as possible, preserve all healthy and healthy elements of tissue stay”. of social life. “

Dr. Chloe Campbell noted in her book Race and Empire that the idea that education should be tailored to the needs of Africans raised the issue of racial differences in educational ability. Some began to question whether Africans had the mental capacity to take up higher education, which led to a number of controversial researches on the subject.

“Dangerous” Education

Dr. HL Gordon, Dr. said the doctor at Mathari Mental Hospital in a column in the London Times and in an address to the African Circle in England that Africans lacked the mental capacity for “idealistic education”, ie academic training and argued, that his research on 444 Kenyans in Mathari had shown a consequent inferiority of the brain capacity of Africans. Hence, he warned, European education was obviously “dangerous” for Africans.

In order to supposedly prove his case, he made the incredible claim that dementia was widespread among Europeans over his time Working at Mathari, he found out that the disease also affected Africans who had become acquainted with European education and religion.

Dr. Gordon had studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before working in various hospitals in London. He arrived in Kenya in 1925 and bought a farm in the white settlement of Koru near Kisumu as part of the government’s plan to give doctors cheap land to provide medical services to the settlers. Here, his work ethic was challenged when white settlers complained that he was always reluctant to treat their African servants.

He later moved to Nairobi to set up a private clinic. At the time, the crowded Mathari Hospital hired Gordon as a doctor, even though he had no formal training in psychiatry. The large number of African patients gave the unethical and racist doctor the opportunity to conduct bizarre research on the subject of “African backwardness” that has always been obsessed with.


He worked closely with Dr. FW Vint, the government pathologist who also caused controversy with his findings that brain weight affects intelligence. According to Vint, an autopsy of the brains of 100 Africans showed a quantitative lack of gray matter of 15 percent compared to a white’s bark. Consequently, he wrote: “The stage of mental development that the average native (sic) attains is that of the average European boy between 7 and 8 years of age.”

Following these controversial claims, a journalist from Der Guardian, a British newspaper, visited prominent Scottish anatomist and anthropologist Prof. Sir Arthur Keith at the Center for Scientific Advances in Kent for expert opinion.

Keith agreed with the results but refused to come clear say: “I believe in the context, but you cannot use it in practice. We don’t judge a man by the size of his brain, nor can we judge him by how he organizes his life … “

As the journalist poked him further, he became more precise and gave a racist view of that African Americans were a good example of how much an African’s brain was supposedly inferior to that of a white man.

Without considering the racial discrimination and prejudice that was widespread in the US in his day, “A whole population of West Coast negroes, not much different from those of Kenya, were transported to the USA and planted among whites for a long time. And what happens? Do we find many of them prominent in Congress, in science, in the arts? “

Professional ethics challenged

The journalist shot back:” No, but that could be due to political reasons In response, Prof. Keith remarked that blacks retained “the traits of boyhood and girlhood for much longer,” which was a disadvantage. However, it was suggested that the alleged research on “the mental performance of an African” on the mentally ill and was conducted by physicians with no psychiatric training – and whose professional ethics were questioned. It was therefore not surprising that the racist findings were discarded in future studies. It was not until 1937 that Mathari got his first specialist in psychiatry, Dr. James Cobb, who had studied and worked in England.

But within a short time in the hospital his mental fitness was restored because of his drunkenness and various issues of bestiality with his pets. It was later discovered that he had also been admitted to a psychiatric facility in England after attempting suicide. As a result, he was forced to retire by the Kenya Medical Board. But Mathari’s name stayed in the history books for the dubious racist experiments, the results of which were controversial.

The author is a London-based Kenyan researcher and journalist