Born in London in 1906, Jessie Barker (later Williamson) studied Botany at Trinity College, Cambridge before embarking on a teaching career, first in County Durham and later in India and Australia. She returned to the UK in 1935, studying dietetics at the University of London before joining the Nyasaland Nutrition Survey, headed by Dr Platt
As reflected in her diaries from the era, Barker’s time in Nyasaland (modern day Malawi) was spent collecting data on the heights and weights of children, as well as documenting and intervening in the eating habits and methods of food production of the people she encountered.
Barker exemplifies the tension in the colonial encounter. A woman at once immersed in the local community and yet at the same time strangely removed from it. Although her work can be interpreted as an attempt to ‘improve’ the lives of those she met, this notion is imbued with colonial ideas of superiority and paternalism. Furthermore, the hostility she encountered within the villages suggests her interventions were not wholly welcomed by the communities in which she worked.