Historical Perspectives on Pandemics in Mexico

Curated by Samantha Davis

Thematic Collections are assortments of past and recently released articles in HAHR about key issues, events, individuals, or historiographical trends. These collections can be used as gateways into a specific historical subject, demonstrations of methodology, or sources for classroom discussion.

As the world grapples with COVID-19, scholars and the public have turned to historical precedents of epidemic disease like the 1918 flu pandemic and typhus. The current crisis has prompted a wide range of reflections on public health and the human experience of disease, themes explored by these HAHR authors. The Hispanic American Historical Review has published many articles on disease and public health through the years, many of which focus on present-day Mexico. The authors featured here each explore different dimensions of disease, public health, and the human experience on local and hemispheric scales grounded in deep historical contexts across the colonial and modern periods. These authors articulate shifting and varying conceptions of disease, responses from governing bodies and individuals, and impacts on diverse populations. Part of a larger conversation surrounding the history of science, medicine, and public health, these articles demonstrate changing attitudes towards and understandings of disease.

“The Fever of War: Epidemic Typhus and Public Health in Revolutionary Mexico City, 1915-1917” by Ryan M. Alexander (2020)

This study articulates how epidemic typhus shaped the lived experiences of Mexico City’s residents and affected subsequent revolutionary political reform. Alexander acknowledges how the epidemic increased criminalization of marginalized populations and the refusal of hospitals to treat people who were incarcerated, orphans, or otherwise relegated to the margins of society.

“The ‘Contagious Stench’ of Idolatry: The Rhetoric of Disease and Sacrilegious Acts in Colonial New Spain” by Amara Solari (2016)

In the early modern period, the spread of disease was understood as caused by poor environmental factors or contagions, which Solari argues contributed to the eventual conflation of idolatry and disease. This article traces the connections between disease, the continued practice of indigenous religions, and the Spanish colonial response to “heretical” acts.

“Mexico’s Superior Health Council and the American Public Health Association: The Transnational Archive of Porfirian Public Health, 1887-1910” by Paul Ross (2009)

This article examines the role of the American Public Health Association (APHA) in US-Mexican relations as expressed through efforts to “modernize the [medical] profession” in Mexico, positioning Mexican doctors and public health officials as experts by the end of the nineteenth century.

“The Science of Redemption: Syphilis, Sexual Promiscuity, and Reformism in Revolutionary Mexico City” by Katherine Bliss (1999)

Engaging in discourses of gender, sexuality, and religion, Bliss argues that the rapid spread of syphilis prompted concern over the morality of Mexico’s population as officials sought to curb the spread of disease by targeting prostitution, the Catholic Church, and the “cult of masculinity.” Bliss’s analysis of the response to syphilis underscores the importance of reformist discourses in public health.

“Yellow Fever and the Late Colonial Public Health Response in the Port of Veracruz” by Andrew L. Knaut (1997)

Engaging with history of science and medicine, Knaut examines the complicated expansion of Enlightenment ideas of public health into colonial New Spain. He suggests that public health initiatives were particularly successful in the Atlantic port of Veracruz, in part due to Veracruz’s economic significance, and that Veracruz became a leader in broader public health efforts.

Top image: Secretary of Health, Mexico City, Mexico. 13 October 2013. Photo by Diego Delso. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported. (Find the original here.)

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