West Africa has a rich medical history. Herbal medicine has been practiced for hundreds of years and the establishment of an effective herbal pharmacopoeia was probably the first medical research carried out in West Africa. Arabic medicine was practiced in the countries of the Sahel in the 15th and 16th centuries. The coming of the Europeans focused research on infectious diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and sleeping sickness, to which Europeans were very susceptible and which caused devastating epidemics among the populations of their new colonies. The end of the colonial era saw the establishment of a few large, well-equipped teaching hospitals but these proved too expensive for the newly independent states of West Africa to run effectively, and the second generation of West African medical schools was based on more modest government hospitals. This led to a change in the focus of research away from the more unusual conditions seen in a specialist referral hospital to an interest in conditions, such as the common infectious diseases, seen more frequently in district hospitals. The advent of the primary health care movement in the 1970s was followed by an increased emphasis on community studies. Molecular biology is likely to have an enormous impact on medicine in general in the coming years. One of the main challenges facing medical researchers in West Africa is how these new technologies can be used most effectively to improve health in countries with limited resources.