Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Donna Patterson is on sabbatical, but she can’t find time to talk. She has just organized a conference at Wellesley called “Medicine, Science, and Health in Africa and the African Diaspora,” and the day after the conference she is heading abroad. She’s traveling among three countries—“my schedule is crazy,” she apologizes over email—but we finally connect when she is in Senegal.
Patterson seems to go nonstop, perhaps reflecting her commitment to her work and the breadth of her interests, which include African history, anthropology, the history of medicine and the medical profession, gender, and entrepreneurship. Her book, Pharmacy in Senegal: Gender, Healing, and Entrepreneurship, published in January, focuses on the development of pharmacies in Senegal in the 20th century. Pharmacies represent a major part of the health-care infrastructure in Senegal, and many pharmacists—almost 50 percent—are women. Patterson was interested in tracking the rise and expansion of this industry, and pulled together data from archives in Senegal and France and dozens of interviews.
“To be honest, it was a very difficult project,” she says, “because no one had ever done anything like it before.”
Her next book will build on this work by focusing on drug consumption and drug distribution in Senegal and Ethiopia—both illegal drugs and pharmaceuticals used medicinally.
‘To be honest, [studying the development of pharmacies in Senegal] was a very difficult project, because no one had ever done anything like it before.
—Donna Patterson, assistant professor of Africana Studies
In addition to conducting research for that project, Patterson is writing an article on Ebola for the French journal Anthropologie et Santé. “I have a fairly strong side interest in Ebola,” she explains, having followed the epidemic for two decades. With her knowledge of the culture of West Africa and how porous the borders are, she was certain that the most recent outbreak would be bad, “though I never imagined it would be this bad,” she says. Her article will briefly compare the epidemic of 2014 with previous outbreaks, and then explore how and why Senegal and Nigeria reacted more quickly and efficiently than Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Patterson began teaching at Wellesley in 2008 and offers courses on African history and the African diaspora. “One of my favorite courses to teach is Health, Medical Professionals, and the Body,” she says, a seminar in which students examine issues such as mental health, epidemics, and women’s reproductive health in various parts of the world. Patterson brings in a variety of guest speakers for the course, from Ophelia Dahl CE/DS ’94, cofounder and board chair of Partners In Health, to a woman who had been circumcised as a child. Students have the option of doing a creative project rather than a final paper, which has led to a public-service announcement for glaucoma in Ghana, a ballet, and numerous works of art.
In addition to her teaching, Patterson engages in as many student, alumnae, and faculty activities as she can squeeze in, but even in her sabbatical year there hasn’t been enough time for everything. “A number of alumnae groups invited me to speak this year,” she notes, “but, sadly, I couldn’t accept all the requests.”