Organized Session

Bodies of Evidence: 20th Century Latin American Biomedicine and Knowledge Production

Organizer

Julia E. Rodriguez

University of New Hampshire

Chair

Julia E. Rodriguez

University of New Hampshire

Metadata

Session Abstract

This panel explores new research at the nexus of subject-patients, their biomatter, and scientific institutions. Its focus is the body as the site of multiple productive processes in twentieth century Latin America and beyond. In all four papers, the body signifies meaning beyond the skin or the person. In the "contact zones" of Central American asylums, disabled patients and their bodies were crucial to shaping scientific knowledge production itself, while in photographs of Peruvian custodial institutions the staged portrayal of patient groups proved central to articulating a top-down vision of medical modernization and charity. In Mexico and the U.S. at midcentury, policymakers sought new models of nutrition education for Indigenous and other minority citizens, but brought old ideas from racial science about bodily difference with them. Conversely, physical anthropologists at the Smithsonian displayed Andean skulls to visualize global humanity's growth, but could not help but rely upon the specific biomedical knowledge of those skulls' original Peruvian interpreters. Collectively, the papers ask the questions: whose knowledge is it, and how is such knowledge negotiated and produced? Examining the use of bodies as evidence in different settings and locales in greater Latin America, the papers aim to provoke discussion about scientific subjectivity, personhood, agency, and ethics that come to the fore in these case studies.

Presenter 1

Inválidos: Hospitals and Asylums in the Rise of Medical Professionalism in Central America, 1890-1944

Heather Vrana

University of Florida

Abstract

In early twentieth-century Latin America, doctors, technocrats, and citizens alike looked for "proof" in new places. This paper argues that disabled people were central to this effort, although most scholarship in the history of science and technology has overlooked them. In fact, as Central American jurists negotiated the vexed transition from Conservative to Liberal rule at the turn of the century, disabled citizens and their place in civil society were of particular interest. Discussions about citizenship, criminality, and race, and understandings of medical truth and proof often referred to disabled citizens to shore up the reputation of the Church or-by contrast-the authority of the secular State. Patient case files, medical journals, textbooks, and government ministry records for the Asilo de Alienados in Guatemala and the Manicomio and Asilo Sara in El Salvador show how conditions like epilepsy, alcoholism, and psychosis enabled medical specialization and expanded the purview of medico-legal policing. When too disruptive to public space or to their families, disabled Central Americans were remitted by police to asylums, where they fell under the authority of medical and legal professionals. This paper argues that the early asylum system was characterized by two factors: 1) the measurement of population (especially the assessment of curability) and 2) state management (especially the expansion of ministries of charity, public health, and sanitation and policing). Thus, this paper attends to the professional and moral dimensions of the early twentieth-century asylum system. Responding to current scholarship in Latin American Science and Technology Studies, which views research as a contact zone where elites encountered "the masses" and formulated norms and predictions about them, this paper posits that asylums and prisons were just such contact zones and places disabled Central Americans within knowledge-production and circulation in global health networks.

Metadata

Presenter 2

The Body Decentered: Envisioning Medical Modernity and Charity in the Photographic Records of Lima, Peru's Public Beneficence Society, 1910-1920

Adam Warren

University of Washington

Abstract

In 1913, Lima's Public Beneficence Society published a detailed catalog of photographs of its hospitals, hospices, orphanages, and facilities for the poor. This paper asks what these photographs and their accompanying descriptions can tell us about perceptions of medical modernity and the purpose of charity in early-twentieth-century Peru. Unlike the typical medical photographs analyzed by historians of medicine, which tend to scrutinize individual patients' bodies and their corresponding illnesses or disabilities, these photographs are notable for articulating a kind of medical gaze in which the body is never central. As images intended to record and promote the organization's work, they instead showcase physical structures, new equipment, new medical and scientific practices, and the tidiness of wards and treatment rooms. Accompanying descriptions highlight the Society's history, administration, capacity, and services. Together, these images and descriptions catalog new, scientifically informed practices of care while simultaneously erasing patients or, alternatively, arranging them en masse as traditional recipients of charity subjected to discipline and regimented reform. When patients are depicted, they are posed in ways that emphasize either their poverty or their labor potential. Many acquire different kinds of knowledge and skills or engage in productive work. As such, these photographs and accompanying descriptions invite a discussion of a kind of medical gaze in which the patients' body is never centered as an object to be read for signs of health and disease, but in which patients are included to resignify Peru's modernized medical and charitable facilities as efficient, orderly, economically productive, and future-oriented.

Metadata

Presenter 3

Bodies, Race, and Native Diets across Mexico and the United States, 1930-1950

Karin Rosemblatt

University of Maryland

Abstract

This paper probes links between conceptions of race, ideas regarding bodily health, and dietary norms in Mexican and US policymaking from approximately 1930-1950. Beginning in the 1930s, diet became a global concern of states, and concern intensified as World War Two disturbed food supply and prompted shortages. In both Mexico and the United States, experts worried that poor nutrition was undermining the health of "minorities" in general and Native peoples especially, thereby undercutting their ability to work and produce for national and international markets. Poor diets, these experts argued, could cause abnormality and degeneration. This paper investigates the ideas regarding racial and bodily plasticity that shaped a series of linked studies of diet organized by the Inter-American Indigenous Institute, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs and a shifting set of Mexican state agencies. Scientists availed themselves of new knowledge regarding calories and nutrients but worried about how well knowledge regarding diet could travel from one place to another. Their publications helped produce racial distinctions that blended traditional ideas about nature and evolution, neo-Lamarckian notions of regarding the effects of cultural differences on bodies, and modernizing ideals. Investigators looked at the effects of natural environments, land tenure, agricultural practices, and culinary traditions on racially and culturally differentiated diets and bodies.

Metadata

Presenter 4

The Skull Wall: Afterlives of Andean Science in the Smithsonian's Hall of Physical Anthropology, 1900-1965

Christopher Heaney

Pennsylvania State University

Abstract

This paper considers the material and intellectual afterlives of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Andean anthropology in the Smithsonian Institution's first Hall of Physical Anthropology. When that hall opened in 1965, in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., it greeted visitors with a wall of human crania representing humanity's numerical growth over time. Those skulls all belonged to "ancient" "Peruvian Indians," the largest individual population in the NMNH's collection of human remains. The larger hall deployed a bowdlerized history of how the Smithsonian's physical anthropologists shifted from questions of racial fixity to migration, recent (and environmental) development of bodily variation, and cultural modifications like tattoos or artificial cranial shaping. Yet the claimed universality of these questions was undercut by the "Peruvian" remains that specifically populated the exhibit. This paper re-embeds those skulls in the condition of their looting or excavation by late nineteenth century physical anthropology and twentieth century Andean anthropology. It shows how American anthropology came to make use of prior Peruvian epistemologies, in which relative antiquity, cranial plasticity, and attributed medical skills like trepanation complicated fixations upon essential skull shape, size, or racial purity. A final analysis of the exhibit's depiction of trepanation, cranial skull surgery, in light of a "Peruvian" history of science suggests the utility of insisting on the "small histories" (Roque, 2010) of human remains' transfer across regimes of science and display.

Metadata