A medical doctor with an inquisitive mind and a traveling spirit, John Richens thought he had hit upon an exemplary public health case study – the story of donovanosis among the Marind people of early-twentieth-century New Guinea. The rare, sexually transmitted disease, locally known as “tik Merauke,” rose to epidemic level after the ruling Dutch moved to quash the Marind practice of headhunting. The intensive treatment campaign that followed was successful, at least insofar as curing the infection.

However, medical outcomes are only one aspect of the complex history of the Marind’s encounter with imperial power, as Richens recounts in Tik Merauke: An Epidemic Like No Other (Melbourne UP, 2022). He introduces us to a cast of characters drawn, for varying reasons, to New Guinea – among them anthropologists, bird hunters, film directors, and missionaries – through whom Western knowledge of the Marind has been filtered. Along the way, he exposes the “darker side of imperialism” which still afflicts the Marind today.

Rachel Pagones is an acupuncturist, educator, and author. Before moving to the UK in 2021 she was chair of the doctoral program in acupuncture and Chinese medicine at Pacific College of Health and Science in San Diego.

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