Diagnosing Society: Medicine and the State in Modern Latin America

AHA Session 30
Conference on Latin American History 5
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon D (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Diego Armus, Swarthmore College
Alexis De Greiff, Universidad Nacional de Colombia

Session Abstract

The history of medicine in Latin America is a burgeoning area of study and one that offers historians a new approach for examining social, political and cultural issues.  Traditionally, historians of medicine wrote about changes in medical treatment or the biographies of famous doctors.  However, within the past decade, historians have used medicine as a lens for examining the social, political, and cultural landscape of Latin America.  As a result, the state, through sponsored institutions, physicians, and programs, attempted to create a hegemonic discourse that relied on medicine as one method for extending control.

Prior to the nineteenth century, a variety of medical techniques were practiced in Brazil, including “Western” and indigenous medicine.  However, during the nineteenth century, the creation of two Faculties of Medicine and the Imperial Academy of Medicine dramatically altered the medical scene. These state-sponsored institutions created a discourse that cemented “Western” medical education as the most respectable option for aspiring Brazilian physicians; medical education also became a viable method for social mobility.  Ultimately, the state would control the professionalization of medicine and determine who was included or excluded in the Brazilian medical community.

Medical schools relied heavily on cadavers in order to study, operate and understand the human body.  In early twentieth century Mexico, state funded medical schools relied on legal and illegal methods in order to obtain cadavers.  Regardless of the methods used to obtain these cadavers, the majority of corpses belonged to the lower classes.  From the Porfiriato to the post-Revolutionary state, doctors and their students needed anatomical material to fulfill the goals of science and the state.  Exploiting the bodies of the poor allowed the state to extend its reach beyond the world of the living and into the world of the dead.

One way post-Revolutionary Mexico attempted to change society was through the education of children.  This included sexual education within school curricula.  According to state officials, many social problems resulted from the exercise of “unhealthy” and “promiscuous” sexual activity among the large youth population.  To reduce these unwanted problems, including high rate of teen pregnancies and clandestine abortions, the Mexican Eugenics Association, sponsored a sexual education program aimed at solving these social ills.  While the state was eager to adopt the program, society-at-large was less enthusiastic about the proposal.

Universal health care proposals in Peronist Argentina represented a failed attempt by the state to strengthen its domination.  Instead of accepting the proposal, the medical professionals, mutual aid societies, provincial and municipal governments as well as physicians’ unions refuted the attempt.  Argentine society ultimately obtained its medical care through sub-national identities based on provincial and municipal citizenship, ethnically based mutual aid societies, labor unions and regional professional organizations.  The state’s control in Latin America of the public by mid-twentieth century was slowly dwindling.

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