Africa in the mid-19th century was a largely unexplored land known primarily for its coastal slave trade. When Scotsman and medical missionary David Livingstone set out for the continent in 1840, his goal was to bring Christianity to southern Africa's uncivilized peoples. Livingstone's journeys into uncharted regions of Africa produced a wealth of geographical information about the continent and important clues to the possible causes of and cures for tropical diseases. His discoveries changed the way Victorian society viewed Africa and created humanitarian and commercial interest in the continent.

The Restless Preacher

The native peoples near Livingstone's station on the Kalahari desert's edge resisted his attempts at evangelization. In 10 years, he made only one convert, who ultimately returned to polygamy. Although Livingstone had married another missionary's daughter and started a family, he set out, in 1849, to explore southern Africa's inner regions. His first trip, across the Kalahari Desert, led to the discovery of Lake Ngami, located in present-day Botswana. This achievement earned Livingstone a gold medal from the British Geographical Society. On a second trip across the desert in 1851, Livingston spotted the upper reaches of the Zambezi River.

From Coast to Coast

Livingstone organized his first major expedition in 1852 with the intention of finding a route from southern Africa's interior to its western coast. He followed the upper Zambezi River north before turning west and crossing what is today Angola. After reaching the Angolan coastline, Livingstone began a return trip following the lower Zambezi. It was on this route that Livingston encountered, in 1855, the landmark local natives called "smoke that thunders." In reality an enormous and captivating waterfall, Livingstone named the site "Victoria Falls." The falls became Livingstone's centerpiece discovery. Livingstone continued on the Zambezi to the Indian Ocean, becoming the first man to forge a transcontinental path across southern Africa.

Land of Many Lakes

In 1858, Livingstone led a British government-sponsored exploration of the Zambezi River from Africa's east coast. When the river proved to be unnavigable, Livingstone and his party left the Zambezi for the Shire River, heading northeast through present-day Malawi. It was here, in 1859, that Livingstone discovered Lake Shirwa, today known as Lake Chilwa. Livingstone learned from the local people that a greater lake lay to the north. After discovering a small lake, Lake Malombe, and trudging through its swampland, Livingstone reached and laid claim to the discovery of Lake Nyasa, also known as Lake Malawi. At 365 miles in length and 52 miles wide, it is one of the African Great Lakes and the ninth largest lake in the world.

More Than an Explorer

Livingstone spent his final years in Africa searching in vain for the source of the Nile River. But Livingstone's contributions to society did not end with geographical discoveries. Livingstone's quinine-based formula for curing malaria was so successful it was marketed and sold by a pharmaceutical company under the name of "Livingstone's Rousers." Livingstone also linked the presence of mosquitoes to the occurrence of malaria and documented a connection between tick bites and recurring fever. These observations helped lay the foundation for later medical discoveries. Livingstone's explorations aided in the mapping of Africa's interior, in turn encouraging commerce on the continent, while his writings were instrumental in influencing England's decision to end the African slave trade.