Earthquakes, Typhus, and the Cultural Construction of Colonial Medicine in Late Colonial Central America

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM
Carnegie Room East (Sheraton New York)
Martha Few, University of Arizona
In 1773, a series of earthquakes struck Santiago de Guatemala, the capital city of the Audiencia of Guatemala. Numerous public health problems arose during its aftermath, including a typhus outbreak. In response, the Audiencia established a Junta de Salubridad in 1774, a medical board to address the outbreak, delineate official typhus treatment guidelines, and tackle the needs of the city's residents. At the same time, Guatemala's city government commissioned Manuel Ávalos y Porras, a medical doctor and Junta member, to write a handbook for how to treat typhus tailored to the city's population, and that of the surrounding tributary Indian towns. The establishment of the Junta and the commissioning of official colonial treatment guidelines show how colonial medicine used this natural disaster as an opportunity to intervene in local medical cultures, in particular home cures and Indigenous medicine. The instructions included strategies designed to disrupt Maya medical cultures active in the city and nearby towns by denouncing the use of the temascal (Mesoamerican steam bath) commonly used in this region to treat typhus. Additionally the official typhus cure promoted by Santiago's city government asserted that typhus led to "hysterical effects" in ladina (hispanicized Indian and/or mixed race) and pregnant women in particular. As a result, I additionally explore on the gendered aspects of official colonial typhus treatments that doctors argued needed to undertaken to prevent the disease typhus-hysteria in women.
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