Treating Burns and Reducing Fire Risk: Hygiene Experts and the Fight against Fire Hazards in Mexico City, 1870–1910

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 3:10 PM
Carnegie Room East (Sheraton New York)
Anna Alexander, Georgia Southern University
Intense industrialization and urbanization during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries exacerbated the presence of disasters, such as urban fires, in Mexico City. The growth of the city, and the dangers that came with it, altered the relationships between people’s bodies and their physical environment. This urban transformation resulted in a considerable increase in the number of fires and fire-related deaths and injuries. Public health officials and physicians, in an effort to make the city and population safer, asserted that science and medicine could help residents of the capital reduce the number of fire-related tragedies.

Alleging that negligence and human error caused the majority of urban fires, public health officials tried to prevent burns and deaths by educating the population about dangers. Mexico City’s 1882 Sanitary Code defined fire hazards as detrimental to public health, hygiene, and safety, and it regulated good and bad practices. The Sanitary Code ultimately divided the city into zones of fire safety and risk, establishing strict guidelines about combustible agents in the city. Physicians, on the other hand, understood the consequences of fire as they manifest on the human body (damaged lungs, infected wounds, scarred tissue, and psychological trauma). For those patients who survived, fire marked their bodies with unsightly scars and the tragic events haunted their memories. Physicians experimented with indigenous healing methods and new surgical procedures such as skin grafts from animals, cadavers, and homeless people desperate for compensation for their flesh.

Stories of pain and suffering or bodies scarred by burns forced physicians and hygienists to reevaluate the meaning of health in the capital. Both approaches from public health officials and trained physicians show how changes in the nature of hazards or accidents required that professionals transform science, medicine, surgery, and hygiene to improve the human condition in the city.