History Department
History Department

Abena Dove Osseo-Asare awarded prestigious Herskovits Prize in African Studies for "Bitter Roots" book

Fri, December 11, 2015
Abena Dove Osseo-Asare awarded prestigious Herskovits Prize in African Studies for
Prof. Osseo-Asare

Abena Dove Osseo-Asare has been awarded the prestigious Melville J. Herskovits Award in African Studies for her book Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2014).  The award was presented to Abena last month at the Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association (ASA), held in San Diego. 

The ASA annually presents the Melville J. Herskovits Prize to the
author of an outstanding original scholarly
 work published on Africa in the previous year. The award is named in 
honor of Melville Herskovits, one of ASA’s founders.

A description of the award, as well as the citation, from the ASA's award presentation:

Osseo-Asare's book is a fascinating comparative history of how six healing
 plants from Africa have been transformed into new medicines.
 Unsettling much of the received history of drug discovery, the book’s
 seamless integration of medicine, law, and botany tells a compelling
 story about the diverse actors—healers, chemists, rural communities,
 and multinational drug companies— that have contributed to the shaping 
of drug knowledge across wide geographic regions. Rigorously 
researched and thoughtfully written, Bitter Roots sets a formidable
 standard in the field of science studies.

Through they have distinctive biographies, the six plants at the heart 
of Osseo-Asare’s investigation — Rosy periwinkle, Asiatic pennyworts,
 grains of paradise, Strophanthus, Cryptolepis, and Hoodia — can
 nevertheless be said to participate in a common history. It is a 
history of conflicting interests and tangled motivations that has 
profound implications for how we understand the continued extraction
of value from Africa. The historical circulation of plants across the
 globe has complicated claims to unique local knowledge, Osseo-Asare
 argues. No single inventor or original group can be identified and 
assigned ownership to plant or a biochemical component. Instead, we
 must recognize the existence of a multiplicity of stakeholders all
 vying for recognition and profits. By tracing how valuable knowledge 
about plants was gathered, circulated, and fought over for over a
 century, Osseo-Asare demonstrates the limitations of uncritically 
assuming that the search for new chemicals has inevitably unfolded
 around a series of conflicts pitting scientists in the Global North
 against small-scale communities in the Global South. The rights of
 indigenous communities intersected at times with that of drug 
companies. Meanwhile African scientists who sought to protect their 
personal findings occasionally did so at the expense of herbalists or 
communities of plants users.

As she follows the plants through their mutation from herbal recipes 
in markets in Accra, Johannesburg, and Antananarivo to laboratory 
experiments across the world, Osseo-Asare uncovers a fundamental
 paradox: while bioprospecting is motivated by a race for patents and
 scientific recognition, the historical migration of "bitter roots”
 unsettles the conventional notion that “scientific” authority weighs 
more than “traditional” medical expertise.

 Bitter Roots boldly reconceptualizes knowledge production, compelling
 us to rethink the place of Africa in the history of science. Beyond a
 concern for the overlapping histories of herbal medicine and 
pharmaceutical research, it raises some critical questions about the
future of bioprospecting and the potential for bioprosperity in an age
 of deepening global inequalities.

The committee was chaired by Adeline Masqulier and
 included Peter Limb, Allen lsaacman, Adeleke Adeeko, and Victoria 
Rovine. The Herskovits Awards are endowed by Kennell A. Jackson, Jr..

Prof. Osseo-Asare's book was also awarded the American Historical Association's 2014 Pacific Coast Branch Book Award.

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