Renaming the German Robert Koch Institute? A plea to commemorate and re-engage a paused argument within Germany

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In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute is a household name, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Named after the renowned scientist Robert Koch, the institute focuses on the investigation and prevention of infectious diseases and advises the country in all matters concerning public health.

However, recent years have seen mounting calls for renaming the Robert Koch Institute, spurred by revelations about Koch’s controversial past as a colonial doctor. This debate has mainly been fueled by voices like Jürgen Zimmerer, a prominent colonial historian, who has underscored Koch’s involvement in perpetuating suffering among Africans during Germany’s colonial era.

To this day, Koch’s stature in the field of microbiology and infectious diseases has been indisputable. His groundbreaking discovery of the tuberculosis bacterium in 1882, followed by his successful efforts in combatting the cholera epidemic of Hamburg in 1892, earned him international acclaim. In 1905, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work. Koch’s contributions extended beyond microbiology; he made significant strides in fields such as allergology, immunology, and tropical medicine.

Despite his scientific achievements, Koch’s personal life in the early twentieth century was marked by turmoil. His divorce, remarriage to a much younger woman, and failed attempts to develop a tuberculosis vaccine significantly tarnished his reputation. Consequently, he shifted his focus to tropical medicine, embarking on research expeditions to various parts of the world, including India, Egypt, South Africa, and the colony German East Africa (present-day mainland of Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda).

Koch’s use of controversial medical practices

During Koch’s expeditions to German East Africa in 1906 and 1907, his involvement in now controversial medical practices came to the fore. Tasked with researching treatment methods for tropical diseases such as malaria and sleeping sickness, Koch and his colleagues resorted to drastic measures, including forced isolation and experimentation on African people.

The colonial physicians had villages resettled – meaning that thousands of sick people were torn from their families and isolated and forcibly treated in leprosaria and camps for sleeping sick people. By 1912, 61 such quarantine stations were documented in German East Africa alone; many were around Lake Nyasa and Lake Victoria, where sleeping sickness was rampant. These isolation sites were called “concentration camps,” a term introduced by the British in South Africa during the Boer War. (see for example the former colony German East Africa: German State Archive BArch* R 1001 5895 – 5912, or Medizinal-Berichte Über Die Deutschen Schutzgebiete. Deutsch-Ostafrika, Kamerun, Togo, Deutsch-Südwestafrika, – Neu-Guinea, Karolinen, Marshall- Und Palau-Inseln Und Samoa. Für Das Jahr 1911/12. Edited by Reichs-Kolonialamt. Berlin: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, 1915, p. 96-100).

I want to highlight a few individual fates found in patient numbers in archive documents: A doctor by the surname Ullrich reported on two suicides in the Kigarama sleeping sick camp. In a report, he described the behavioural changes of patient 599. The young man initially adapted, cooperated with the medical staff, and worked as a carpenter. But he soon lost hope of recovery, became more and more withdrawn, and finally stopped speaking. At night, he wandered about in silence. In the morning, he was found sitting on the grass and staring at nothing. (German State Archive: Ullrich, in BArch R 1001 5903, 12.)

The colonial doctors kept meticulous records of who died in the camps, who were supposedly cured or who left under other circumstances. “Coming off” (anderweitig abgehen) was used as a paraphrase for countless test subjects fleeing torture in the name of medical progress. (see for example: BArch R 1001 5903, 38-40). Many patients were recaptured and brought back to the camp, often in Y-shaped “slave forks” that fixed the head and neck.

One of the most egregious aspects of Koch’s colonial medical endeavours was his advocacy for the use of toxic substances such as Atoxyl, an arsenic-based compound. He continued to vouch for it even when increasing warnings raised on its harmful effects grew louder. The experimentation conducted on Africans, often without their consent, resulted in widespread health damage and fatalities. The ethical implications of Koch’s actions have come under intense scrutiny in recent years, with historians and activists calling attention to the atrocities committed in the name of scientific progress.

The conducted research occurred on a large scale. Colonial doctors tested blood values, performed lumbar punctures, and pumped the patients full of arsenic, sometimes mixed with oil. The notorious Atoxyl was injected in extremely high doses. People suffered excruciating pain, lost their buttocks to necrosis, went blind or died in much more painful ways than sleeping sickness.

Koch’s legacy and its link to German colonialism

The debate over Koch’s legacy is part of a broader reckoning with Germany’s colonial past. Medical historians like the late Wolfgang Eckart or historian Facil Tesfaye (see also this article) have long highlighted the crimes committed by German doctors in Africa during the colonial era. Still, mainstream narratives often overlook or downplay these accounts. Renewing the focus on Koch’s role in perpetuating colonial violence reflects a growing awareness of the need to confront uncomfortable truths about Germany’s colonial history.

Particularly, in recent years, postcolonial scholars and activists have challenged the glorification of figures like Koch, arguing that they should not be celebrated as heroes while their victims remain forgotten. The legacy of colonialism continues to cast a long shadow over contemporary debates on historical memory and commemoration. Calls for renaming institutions and street names honouring figures like Koch are part of a broader movement to acknowledge and reckon with the long shadows of German colonial history.

His legacy remains controversial in Tanzania, where Koch conducted most of his colonial medical research. While some argue that Koch should be remembered for his contributions to medical science, others view him as a symbol of colonial oppression and exploitation. The presence of plaques and signs commemorating Koch in the Ocean Road Hospital in Dar es Salaam serves as a reminder of the complex and fraught relationship with colonialism in the region.

In conclusion, the debate over the legacy of Robert Koch reflects broader discussions about memory, commemoration, and historical accountability. While Koch’s scientific successes are undeniable, his involvement in colonial atrocities should not be overlooked. The renaming of institutions bearing his name is not about erasing history but about acknowledging the full complexity of his persona and his place within German colonialism. After all, the colonial past of Germany has been having an enduring impact on societies around the world. It is an opportunity to honour the memory of those who suffered under colonial rule and to reaffirm a commitment to postcolonial reconciliation.

 

* The German Federal Archives or Bundesarchiv (BArch) (German: Bundesarchiv, lit. ‘Union-archive’) are the National Archives of Germany.

Anna Orinsky is a PhD Researcher at the EUI Department of History. Anna’s PhD thesis will be on ‘Reproductive Choice in German-New-Guinea, German-East Africa, and Germany. A Comparative Study on the Translation of Natalism to the Colonies and (Female) Means of Avoiding Offspring, 1885-1914’