The Mental Stakes of Nation: Toward Psychiatric Discipline(s) in Latin America

AHA Session 83
Conference on Latin American History 11
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Mercury Rotunda (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Greg Childs, Brandeis University
Richard Keller, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Session Abstract

The literature on histories of health and medicine in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Latin America has increased exponentially in recent years. From questions regarding sanitation reform to the emergence of tropical medicine, there is now a robust and lively interest in the role that psychiatrists, physicians, and medical reformers played in the formation of modern Latin American and Caribbean nation-states. The great upshot of such a move is that historians have been able to demonstrate the tensions, conflicts, and negotiations between scientific professionals and professional politicians, sets of elites who have often been considered as allies and collaborationists in population governance. Furthermore, by focusing on both the wars of words between different sets of elites, as well as actual medical practices and experiments that such elites performed on citizens of the nation, much of this recent work has forced us to seek out the dialectical interplay between discourses and material practices that unfolded during periods of reform or revolution.

Much of this work, however, has had little to say about the importance of madness and sanity in the construction of modernity and the professionalization of medicine. The paucity of work in this arena is startling considering the fact that psychiatric institutions, mental asylums, and medical practices dating from the nineteenth century were routinely targeted as spaces of "backwardness" that were in need of scientific modernization in the twentieth century. With papers focusing on Peru, Cuba, and Brazil, our panel intends to interrogate this problematic by looking not only at debates and conflicts between sets of elite medical practitioners, but also by demonstrating that such conflicts were often rooted in historical arguments and precedents about the proper method for producing a mentally healthy body politic in the twentieth century. Together these papers demonstrate that medical reformers of the twentieth century were not only conscious of the links between early “pre-scientific” medical practices; they also attempted to narrate these links to a broader public. They thus attempted to function as both practitioners and chroniclers of their country’s medical histories.

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