Helen Tilley Associate Professor

Helen Tilley (Ph.D., Oxford, 2002) examines medical, environmental, and human sciences in colonial and post-colonial Africa, emphasizing intersections with environmental history, development studies, legal history, and global history. Her book, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge (Chicago, 2011) explores the dynamic interplay between scientific research and imperialism 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, and epidemiology in tropical Africa, 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).

Her current project focuses on the history of African decolonization, global governance, and the ethnoscientific projects that accompanied state building in the colonial and Cold War era. She is investigating, in particular, 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 and two Scholars Awards, for her first and second books projects, from the National Science Foundation. At Northwestern, she directs Science in Human Culture and holds a 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.

Affiliated Programs



Recent Articles:

Teaching Interests

She teaches a range of courses in global and African history relating to race, medical pluralism, environmental issues, ethnoscience and technoscience, and law. She welcomes graduate students interested in any of her areas of expertise especially as they intersect with African, imperial, or global history.

Recent Awards and Honors

  • Faculty Fellowship, Buffett Institute for Global Studies, 2016-2019.
  • National Science Foundation Scholars Award, 2015-2018.
  • Senior Faculty Fellow, Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, 2013-14.
  • Ludwik Fleck Prize for Africa as a Living Laboratory, 2014.
  • Honorable Mention, Herskovits Prize, Africa as a Living Laboratory, 2012.