Pandora’s Box

Ethnography and the Comparison of Medical Beliefs

The 1979 Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures

By Gilbert Lewis

In this book, written between 1979 and 2020, Gilbert Lewis distills a lifetime of insights he garnered as a medical anthropologist. He asks: How do beliefs about illness in different societies influence their members’ ability to heal? Despite the advances of Western medicine, what can it learn from non-Western societies that consider sickness and curing to be as much a matter of social relationships as biological states? What problems arise when one set of therapeutic practices displaces another?

Lewis compares medical approaches he witnessed in eastern New Guinea before and after it gained nationhood. What was it like for people to fall ill and get cured in 1968, when their village was still self-reliant? How did their experiences change by 1983, when they were dependent on Western medicine? Lewis then widens his comparative scope by turning to Africa, where he discusses an Ivorian therapeutic community run by a prophet who heals the ill through confession and long-term residential care. What does his approach provide to patients that Western psychiatry does not?

Pandora’s Box began life with the prestigious series of Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures that Gilbert Lewis presented in 1979 at the University of Rochester. He expanded them with materials gathered over the next forty years, completing the manuscript a few weeks before his death. Written in his signature conversational stye, this book will inspire anthropologists, medical professionals, students, and curious readers to look with new eyes at current crises in world health conditions.


“This is a remarkable book by the UK’s leading medical anthropologist. Gilbert Lewis was both a professional anthropologist and a trained medical doctor. He brought these skills and extraordinary personal insight when carrying out pioneering fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. In this his final book, he retains the clarity of his original lectures and extends his analysis to healing processes in Africa. It is a striking achievement, invaluable for anyone specializing in medical anthropology today.”

Murray Last, author of The Sokoto Caliphate

“Gilbert Lewis’ concise ethnographic descriptions, combined with profound reflections on medicine and society, morality and practical reasoning, bring back to life his gentle caution to ‘tread carefully’ in one’s thinking. The self-conscious alertness his lectures instilled in audiences demonstrates that medical anthropology—a field he co-founded—has profound contributions to make for humankind.”

Elisabeth Hsu, author of Pulse Diagnosis in Early Chinese Medicine


GILBERT LEWIS (1938–2020) was a medical anthropologist who conducted research in New Guinea on rituals and beliefs about illness and healing. He was a fellow at St. John’s College, UK, and a lecturer at Cambridge University. His other books include Day of Shining Red, A Failure of Treatment, and Knowledge of Illness in Sepik Society.


225 pages
ISBN: 9781912808328
Price: $25