Helen Tilley

Associate Professor of Law (Courtesy)


Helen Tilley is Associate Professor of History and Law at Northwestern University. She teaches courses on global legal history, science and technology studies (STS), and global environmental and medical history. Her research explores transnational and border-crossing problems relating to governance, knowledge, economic development, the sciences, disease and health, and environmental change. She spent many years working within non-governmental organizations focused on North-South policy negotiations relating to biodiversity, toxics, intellectual property rights, and “traditional knowledge.”

She recently led a multidisciplinary collaboration with legal scholars, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians that resulted in a sixteen-chapter special issue of the annual journal, Osiris, as Therapeutic Properties: Global Medical Cultures, Knowledge, and Law (2021). The volume examines the worldwide ascendancy of biomedicine, the persistence of unofficial and unorthodox approaches to healing, and the legal contexts that have served to shape these dynamics. The contributions draw upon source material from the Americas, Africa, Western Europe, the Caribbean, and Asia to trace the influence of penal and civil codes, courts and constitutions, and patents and intellectual properties on health practices and the very foundations of state-sanctioned medicine and global health governance. Highlighting the payoff of interdisciplinary and comparative analyses, Therapeutic Properties teases apart how different actors fought to write the rules of global health, rendering certain approaches to life and death irrelevant and invisible, others pathological and punishable by law, and others still, normal and natural. 

Her book, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, (Chicago, 2011) unearths the dynamic interplay between scientific research and empire-building in British Africa between 1870 and 1950. It received the Ludwik Fleck Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science (2014), honorable mention for the Herskovits Prize of the African Studies Association (2012), and the Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award (2012). She has also written articles and book chapters on the history of ecology, eugenics, agriculture, racial science, medical experimentation, and epidemiology in tropical Africa and beyond, and is co-editor with Robert Gordon of Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism and the Politics of Knowledge (Manchester, 2007) and with Michael Gordin and Gyan Prakash of Utopia-Dystopia: Historical Conditions of Possibility (Princeton, 2010). 

She is currently finishing a book on the history of African decolonization, global governance, and the ethno-scientific projects that accompanied state-building in the colonial and Cold War era. She is focused especially on the different scientific studies and legal interventions in the twentieth century that originally helped to construct “traditional medicine” as a viable category of research and policy-making.  She has received grants for her research from the Wellcome Trust, the National Science Foundation (two Scholar’s Awards), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (a collaborative research grant). At Northwestern, she has directed the Science in Human Culture Program, co-founded the Global Medical Cultures and Law Project, and held a three-year Faculty Fellowship with the Buffett Institute for Global Studies. She is also affiliated with the programs in African Studies, Global Health, Legal Studies, and Environmental Policy and Culture.






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