TDR Global profile: A medical anthropology career serving those most in need

Professor Lenore Manderson

Lenore Manderson has worked for 40 years in the field of medical anthropology, finding answers to problems of health and disease inequalities, and lack of access to care. Here she discusses her extraordinary career.

Lenore Manderson
Provided by Lenore Manderson

Lenore’s mother was a trained nurse and the discussions they had about her career options were along the lines of, “You could be a doctor” or “You could be a neuroscientist,” bringing her imagination to the spaces her daughter might occupy.

“In the end I brought together my interests in social life and everyday circumstances, and linked that to a general interest in health and illness”, she explains. “Medical anthropologists explore questions around structural vulnerability, poverty and marginalization, and how these circumstances impact on the risk factors of infection and disease and on access to care.”

Examining how poverty influences health outcomes

This interest initiated a broad scope of research. For example, Lenore’s work in Queensland on breast and cervical cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment resulted in a new strategic plan and statewide programme of enhanced services for indigenous women. In the early 1990s, she developed the Malaria Manual, based on collaborative research in Ghana, and she supported various projects on malaria in the Philippines and China. She has also worked on schistosomiasis, tuberculosis, dengue, gender-related risk factors of disease and its expression, and access to care.

“Diseases are neglected because the lives of those who experience them are neglected,” Lenore explains. “The health of marginalized and poor people receives less money and less attention.”

She has advised multiple global, national and state bodies on subjects ranging from HIV to malaria prevention, urban health, nutrition, adolescent health, sexually transmitted diseases, mental health and violence against women.

Lenore’s connections to TDR are deep. She has mentored grantees and served on numerous committees, including the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) and the Scientific Working Group on Vectors, Environment and Society, and she’s currently involved in the Social Innovations in Health Initiative (SIHI).

The list of achievements, publications, awards and collaborations to Manderson’s name is astonishing. As an author, co-author and editor, she has produced 24 academic books; guest edited 15 special journal volumes, 241 peer-reviewed articles and 103 book chapters; and authored almost as many other reports, manuals, guidelines and short articles.

She just received the Career Achievement Award from the prestigious Society of Medical Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association. A tribute says: "Lenore's wide-ranging and effective promotion of medical anthropology at high levels in the global health agency architecture in so many different capacities is unique and has profoundly improved our sub-discipline’s engagement with policy-makers, implementers, and agenda-setters.”

A family approach to a career

Asked how she has managed to achieve all she has, she seems nonplussed for a moment but then says: “Well I don’t know. One becomes successful by making your work the centre of your life.”

She puts most of this down to absolute dedication, finishing supper and going back to work, supported by a husband who took over domestic duties: “When I took up my first Chair, my kids were one and three. The one thing that helped me was that my husband took early retirement to run the house, while working part-time. Without him none of this would have happened. He is the person who did tuck shop duty, who did the ballet and soccer runs, and everything else.” In one year while her children were still preschool age, she worked out she’d spent 26 weeks overseas.

Giving back

The poor health of indigenous people remains one of the biggest issues today, and race-based and gender inequalities are part of an “unfinished agenda,” says Lenore with a steely look in her eye. “An agenda like TDR’s that builds research capacity in tropical diseases is an agenda to correct the way that knowledge is inequitably distributed worldwide, and redressing this helps address structural and historic inequalities.”

The difference she can make, she says, is to bring to the table discussions around inequality and social exclusion, vulnerability and marginality, gender and class. She insists on the need to constantly attend to how these factors impact on people’s health, their experience of disease, and life circumstances.

She has trained a breath-taking 150 PhD and masters students, producing generations of highly productive medical anthropologists and public health professionals. This includes a dozen or more TDR-supported people completing a PhD from Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and China. These scientists have all gone on to be very successful research scientists or have played major roles in ministries of health.

One of her PhD students, Ma Saw Saw, who is now Deputy Director and Head of Health Systems Research Division in the Ministry of Health and Sports in Myanmar, says: “She was my inspiration. As my supervisor and mentor, Lenore helped me see my research from different angles, providing excellent guidance and countless support throughout my PhD journey. She always has time to listen and comment with great enthusiasm. She has an incredible understanding of how to motivate international students. She is my life-long mentor who was always looking out for my future career.”

Mary Ann Lansang, Professor of Medicine and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of the Philippines, who worked with Manderson at TDR, says: “Lenore is a key asset in promoting and strengthening the capacity of TDR scientists for transdisciplinary research. Many scientists, particularly those who have successfully transcended the divide between the social and biomedical sciences, fondly remember Lenore as their mentor, co-author, colleague, and friend. She is a voracious and prolific writer, gender equity champion, and a lover of art and culture.”

“Institutional strengthening, building research capacity, and mentoring supervision have all been important to me,” Lenore concurs. “There was a point when I felt that to continue to contribute to a greater good, I would be most useful based in Africa, collaborating with a range of people.”

She now spends six months of the year in Johannesburg at the University of the Witwatersrand as Distinguished Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology in the School of Public Health, which she helped set up. When not at Wits, Manderson spends two months at Brown University (and also participates in masters’ teaching online), as Visiting Distinguished Professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Anyone who has worked with TDR can become a member of TDR Global. This provides further exposure of your work, and the opportunity to find research collaborations and either be a mentor or ask for a mentor. For further information, email:

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Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289