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 Indigenous medical beliefs in New Guinea in 1968, when villagers were largely self-reliant, and in 1983, after they became dependent on Western medicine. He then widens his comparative scope by turning to West Africa and discussing a therapeutic community run by a prophet who heals the ill through confession and long-term residential care.

Pandora’s Box began life with the prestigious Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures that Gilbert Lewis delivered 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. Engagingly written, this book will inspire anthropologists, medical professionals, students, and curious readers to look with new eyes at current crises in world health.

“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 specialising in medical anthropology today.”

Murray Last, author of The Sokoto Caliphate

“As fresh as if it were written yesterday, this historical account of the everyday life of falling ill—and of the care or callousness elicited thereby—is augmented by anthropological debates of the time. Not only when speaking of the Gnau people, Gilbert Lewis’ pragmatic compassion shines through the exquisite quality of observation and the measured, even-handed pace of his prose. It is wonderful to hear his thoughts and insights all over again in this way.”

Marilyn Strathern, author of Before and After Gender

“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 his audiences demonstrates that medical anthropology—a field he co-founded—has invaluable 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.

6″ x 9″, 322 pp.
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Part I. Being ill

Chapter 1. Pandora’s box
Chapter 2. Village illness and a panic
Chapter 3. Long suffering and injustice
Chapter 4. The introduction of a medical aid post

Part II. Recognizing and defining illness

Chapter 5. The meaning of “leprosy”
Chapter 6. The right diagnosis
Chapter 7. Normality and values
Chapter 8. No simple definition

Part III. The experience of change

Chapter 9. Bregbo, a healing center in Côte d’Ivoire
Chapter 10. Witchcraft and depression
Chapter 11. The impact of events

Part IV. Treatment

Chapter 12. Healing actions
Chapter 13. A Sepik performance of treatment
Chapter 14. Faith and the skeptical eye

Appendix: Transcription of Milek’s healing

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