Networks of Health and Biomedical Knowledge in Modern Times: Scientists, Lay Experts, and the State in Latin America

AHA Session 129
Conference on Latin American History 26
Friday, January 7, 2022: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Napoleon Ballroom C1 (Sheraton New Orleans, 3rd Floor)
Daniel Rodriguez, Brown University
Daniel Rodriguez, Brown University

Session Abstract

The construction of biomedical knowledge has inspired interest across disciplines in recent decades. Latin America, as a bastion of ethnomedical resources, has been central to this flourishing topic for several reasons. Latin America's experience with the persistence of plural legal regimes that partially acknowledge the authority of indigenous healing practices; the endurance of rural cultures in the consolidation of modern nation states; and the secular and religious institutions’ entanglement in modern public health have complicated Eurocentric views of the rise of medical professions and institutions, the foundations of biomedical knowledge, and communities’ contributions notwithstanding the varying degrees of commitment by nation-states and global health regimes. Today, as states confront a novel Coronavirus pandemic and medical experts are forced to consider the preferences of lay communities and authorities once more, Latin America might again provide informative perspectives.

This panel explores the role of political and sociocultural contexts (race, gender and class) in the creation of science and medicine as modern categories during critical moments of Latin American state formation. Paul Ramirez’s “Vaccinating Mexico: Smallpox, Public Health, and the Metamorphosis of a Welfare State” employs the history of epidemics and preventive medicine to offer a comparative view of the causes, durability, and scope of investments in disease prevention and human welfare in the 1800s. The paper functions as a proxy for questions about nation-building processes, public welfare programs, and local sites of medical and religious authority in the design of periodic campaigns. Turning to Brazil, Maria Paula Andrade’s “The Politics of Healing: Leprosy and Biomedical Knowledge Production in Brazil Circa 1850” examines how physicians investigating leprosy utilized the sick poor’s bodies to shape the political importance of scientific investigation for Brazilian state making. Through a local and transnational framework, Andrade reassesses scholarly focus on late-1800s scientific investigation and health for state control to raise broader questions about the politically contentious role of the marginalized in biomedical knowledge production.

Likewise featuring understudied spaces of medical authority, Marissa Nichols’ “Promoting Health: Rural Nurses and Indigenous Authorities in 20th-Century Oaxaca, Mexico” complicates historiographic portrayals of medical auxiliaries in Mexico as extensions of colonial or federal power and key collectors of public health surveillance. Centering on themes of authority, indigeneity and gender, Nichols investigates how visiting nurses in the 1940s rural Oaxaca asserted their authority and negotiated implementation of health measures among municipal officials and indigenous residents. Finally, Taylor Dysart’s “Transforming Knowledges: Ayahuasca, Expertise, and the Human Sciences in Peru, 1962-1972” explores the interaction between scientists and “plant matter experts” and asks how the latter shaped practices and scientific knowledge around ayahuasca ̶ a divinatory, hallucinogenic, and therapeutic concoction widely used by Indigenous tribes across the Amazon. Broadly construing expertise to include lay healers, patients, merchants, and scientists from the Universidad Mayor de San Marcos, Dysart shows that the production of scientific knowledge about ayahuasca led scientists to increasingly draw racialized boundaries between knowledge, science, and tradition.

This panel thus raises important reflections about sociopolitical interactions that helped shape modern constructions of health, medicine and science.

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