Technocrats, Urban Disease, and “Rural Idealism” in Early Twentieth-Century Chile

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 9:10 AM
Congressional Room B (Omni Shoreham)
Patrick Barr-Melej, Ohio University
During the opening decades of the twentieth century, Chilean policy makers and ministry officials, including physicians, who embraced and pursued modernization grew increasingly concerned about an upsurge in disease, including tuberculosis, which primarily struck rapidly expanding urban populations. Booming working-class neighborhoods in Santiago and Valparaíso, where families packed tenement houses, were particularly fecund environments for the spread of illness, leading to high infant mortality rates, among other outcomes. While oligarchs of the Parliamentary Republic (1891-1920) and subsequent middle-class reformist governments understood urban disease as a grave problem, the latter more aggressively approached the issue as one concomitant with the ‘social question,’ or the problem of worsening urban conditions in relation to the rise of working-class radicalism. By the 1930s, it was common for medical officials in and outside the state to prescribe social reform as a treatment for urban disease. While some studies have approached the issue of urban disease in Chile, very little work exists on the relationship between urban disease and urban conceptions of the countryside during the period in question. This paper suggests that reformist technocrats came to see the countryside as a more “healthy” place, medically speaking, and this reinforced a general notion circulating among middle-class reformers that rural society (and the southern Central Valley in particular, which was home to small landowners and was a hotbed of the middle-class reformist Radical Party) was healthier, socially and morally speaking, than urban society. I argue that such “rural idealism,” not only became embedded in Chilean national identity but also had the effect of glossing over what were significant public-health and social problems in rural society, giving us some insight into the reformists’ ultimate failure to prevent the spread of revolutionary movements in the countryside.
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