Blog 20 Jul 2021

As we at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) approach our 125-year anniversary, we find ourselves at the nexus of concerns about the pervasive colonial legacy of UK academic institutions. This legacy has been identified as a contributing factor to the persistence of the structural or systemic racism that continues to act against social equity within health, education, and research within the UK and globally. By structural racism we mean that “racism and racial inequalities globally are not simply the result of private prejudices held by individuals but perpetuated by policies and practices that exist throughout a society or organization, and that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race” (this is the Cambridge dictionary definition).

The history of LSTM’s education is closely entwined with the growth of the Empire. Although the values of the institution have changed, this past has still played a role in setting the premise for international and global health education and practices and the current mission values of saving lives in ‘resource poor settings.  

The first LSTM building, completed 1914

Established in 1898 in Liverpool by Sir Alfred Lewis Jones, through funding from profits from colonial exploitation by European countries in Africa, LSTM, is the oldest School of Tropical Medicine in the world. Historically, the port of Liverpool, was one of the key centres of the transatlantic slave trade, which was followed by unequal colonial trade; and so much of the city’s wealth directly resulted from the enslavement of Africans and extractive colonial exploitations. Later this wealth was invested and increased through the importance of the port to the expansion of the British Empire.  The emergence of the discipline of Tropical Medicine and LSTM was driven by these colonial interests, through the drive to protect the health of white settlers and traders as they violently extracted wealth from people in Africa and Asia.  These events led to the establishment of the Royal Liverpool Infirmary on Brownlow Street (now home to the Foresight Centre) and the establishment of the LSTM as these diseases required special attention, knowledge, and protocols for disease management.   According to the historical record, LSTM was always called the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. There was a Alfred Lewis Jones Tropical Ward at the Royal Infirmary with beds at the Southern Hospital too.

During this period, and driven by colonial interests, the School developed its own reputation for research, teaching and treating tropical diseases with some of its earlier discoveries and breakthrough in clinical sciences, including understanding malaria transmission, and sleeping sicknesses. This work was closely aligned with other developments in biomedical sciences at the time such at the germ theory.

Biomedical sciences are rooted in powerful discourses of objectivity, neutrality, with most of the knowledge informed by ‘western’ ideas and philosophies.  The development of these ideas and philosophies was closely entwined with the development of racist ideologies, including the use of ‘science’ to promote and justify racism and violent exploitation of black people globally.

The political, economic, social and ideological conditions that shaped the foundation of Tropical Medicine as a discipline and the Liverpool School of Tropical medicine today continue to influence health globally.  The extraction of wealth during slavery and colonialism was the foundation of the global inequalities that shape vast inequities in opportunities for health and education between the global north and the global south today.  The racist ideologies that supported this extraction continue to influence societies and educational processes globally in direct and more subtle ways. 

Early LSTM cohort

It is therefore vital not only to acknowledge the colonial history of LSTM’s education and its epistemologies, but also to actively seek to redress the structural racism that continues to perpetuate inequalities today.  In recognition of this, we have set up a ‘Decolonising Education’ working group whose remit is to work collaboratively with students, staff, and overseas and local partners to support, guide the process, and collect evidence that will inform LSTM decolonising approaches.

‘Decolonising’ is a slippery concept.  Here at LSTM, the Decolonising Education Working Group is reviewing literature and consulting with students and staff to develop LSTM own definition. However, the LSTM Working Group is inspired by SOAS’s definition of decolonising which is ‘thought and action within the university to redress forms of disadvantage associated with racism and colonialism’ (Decolonising SOAS working Group, page 3).  This according to Decolonising SOAS Working Group, involves the ‘background assumption that global histories of Western domination have had the effect of limiting what counts as authoritative knowledge, whose knowledge is recognised, what universities teach, and how they teach it’.

LSTM is currently undertaking several activities that promote inclusivity: 

LSTM History Group


BAME network

Equity and Diversity