In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Health and Disease in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1600–1870

  • Introduction
  • Primary Sources: Online Collections and Translated Readers
  • Digital Research Collections
  • Overviews of Health and Disease in Latin American History
  • Cultural and Political Histories of the Body
  • Environmental Histories of Health and Disease
  • Healers and Healing Practices
  • Hospitals, Institutions, and the National Approach to Colonial Histories
  • Medical Authority and Epistemology
  • Public Health, Governance, Sanitation
  • Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Disease
  • The Catholic Enlightenment and the Bourbon Reforms
  • Women, Gender, and Reproductive Health

Latin American Studies History of Health and Disease in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1600–1870
Farren Yero, Elizabeth A. O'Brien
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0265


Health and disease have long animated historical studies of Latin America and the Caribbean, predominantly through the lens of medical science, taken up in modern histories of the region through the politics of public health, the rise of biomedicine, and the professionalization of the medical discipline. This article approaches the history of disease through a broader understanding of health and healing that understands medicine to be fundamentally interconnected with religion, ritual practice, and extra-human relations with the natural world. The authors have chosen studies that trouble chronologies dividing Latin American history into colonial and modern eras. They instead highlight works that show how multiple cosmographies, epistemologies, and other ways of knowing with and beyond biomedicine continued to inform health practices well after independence and the rise of the nation-state. Some of the most important thematic trajectories across these bodies of scholarship are discussed, with emphasis on methodological innovation and impact in the field. Much of the scholarship highlighted here draws on archival sources related to the Inquisition, criminal and ecclesiastical courts, the transatlantic slave trade, municipal records, and correspondence sent and housed in Seville at the General Archive of the Indies (AGI). Included are a mix of canonical texts and newer pieces that have moved the field in exciting and innovative directions. The collections are not intended to be exhaustive but rather suggestive of distinct debates in the subfields we have chosen to highlight. Following the first three sections after the Introduction, which are on primary sources (online collections and published translations), digital research collections, and overviews, the sections are organized alphabetically by title. Cueto and Palmer 2015 (cited under Overviews of Health and Disease in Latin American History) is one of the only comprehensive English-language textbooks on health and disease in Latin American history, though it tends to favor the modern period. In addition, there are several useful overviews and collections that teach well in undergraduate and graduate coursework. The field of early modern Latin American history would greatly benefit from additional overviews and edited collections that take up the role of health and disease in the region, particularly as they intersect with questions of race, gender, sexuality, disability, class, religion, enslavement, and the law.

Primary Sources: Online Collections and Translated Readers

Primary sources in this field can be grouped into two general categories: digital resources and edited (and/or translated) primary sources in print. The authors have listed some general digital repositories and resources here—namely The Free Womb Project, Collective for the History and Culture of the Region of the Americas, The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine, and History of Science in Latin America and the Caribbean. These digital collections contain broad sources of information, digitized manuscripts, and scholarly introductions related to health and disease in the region. Unfortunately, there are still only a few examples of English translations of primary source materials on the subject of health and disease in Latin American history. This is changing, as evidenced by the recent publication of three exciting new readers: Jaffary and Mangan 2018; Few, et al. 2020; and Lane 2021. All three texts offer students a rich set of materials to begin learning the craft of history. They additionally demonstrate what kinds of questions historians of health and disease can ask when they center the role of gender and race in their analysis. Few 2000 is also a useful standalone case study in this regard and can help students learn to read and use Inquisition records, as well as the importance of this institution in the historiography of health history in Latin America and the Caribbean. Conrad 1983 remains an essential source reader for the region, showcasing the myriad kinds of texts that students might use to understand the connections between health and disease, particularly as they relate to slavery and the slave trade, beyond traditionally used sources, including Inquisition cases, which, in turn, expands the parameters of what constitutes the terrain of health history.

  • Collective for the History and Culture of the Region of the Americas.

    A digital collective of teaching resources made available by scholars of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world. Materials include short video presentations, curated historical sources or scholarly studies, creative assignments, and a range of other artifacts, including timelines and maps. Subject material covered includes health and disease, among other interrelated topics such as radio, smuggling, the transatlantic slave trade, geography, tango, the law, earthquakes, labor organizing, and more.

  • Conrad, Robert Edgar. Children of God’s Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

    A collection of translated primary sources related to the slave trade and enslaved life in Brazil. Sources include observations by physicians about the Middle Passage, plantation management, and disease outbreaks, as well as a number of materials that more broadly convey the political, social, and material circumstances under which enslaved people lived. Most of the sources are from the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Few, Martha. “On Her Deathbed, María de la Candelaria Accuses Michaela de Molina of Casting Spells.” In Colonial Lives: Documents on Latin American History, 1550–1850. Edited by Richard E. Boyers and Geoffrey Spurling, 166–176. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Translated excerpts of a 17th-century Inquisition case from Guatemala related to illness through the crime of sorcery. Along with recommended reading, it includes an introduction that situates the history and politics of the Inquisitorial tribunal in Guatemala and provides discussion questions related to issues of race, gender, health, and evidence.

  • Few, Martha, Nina Scott, Zeb Tortorici, and Adam Warren. Baptism through Incision: The Postmortem Cesarean Operation in the Spanish Empire. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780271086743

    This exciting tri-authored collaboration provides a critical assessment of the use of the cesarean operation throughout the Spanish Empire to extract and baptize the unborn. Includes translated excerpts of important and little-known primary sources, including works by Spanish surgeon Jaime Alcalá y Martínez, Mexican physician Ignacio Segura, and Peruvian friar Francisco González Laguna, as well as late-colonial Guatemalan instructions and newspaper articles published in the Gazeta de México, the Gazeta de Guatemala, and the Mercurio Peruano.

  • The Free Womb Project.

    The website is a digital history project designed by Yesenia Barragan, and it draws from her forthcoming book, Frontiers of Freedom: Slavery and Emancipation on the Colombian Pacific, a study of gradual abolition of slavery in Colombia. The site includes a number of translated “free womb” laws from across the Americas, recommended reading, and an introductory essay on the intersections of reproduction, abolition, and the law in 19th-century Latin America.

  • History of Science in Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Directed and managed by Julia E. Rodriguez and Jan Golinski, this digital archive contains over two hundred primary sources related to health, medicine, and science in Latin America and the Caribbean. The site is organized chronologically into modules, including such topics as Healers & Indigenous Medicine, the Columbian Exchange, Slavery and Science, and the Spanish American Enlightenment and Scientific Expeditions, with each containing an extensive introductory essay, reading questions, further reading, and topical primary sources.

  • Jaffary, Nora E., and Jane E. Mangan. Women in Colonial Latin America, 1526 to 1806: Texts and Contexts. Indianapolis: Hackett. 2018.

    A fantastic new collection of translated sources offering students insights into the lives of enslaved, Indigenous, and free women navigating colonial rule. In addition to an insightful introduction and useful maps showing the movement of different historical subjects across the Atlantic, the chapters on midwifery, infanticide, and abortion are especially relevant. Another chapter of interest is a newly translated excerpt of Afro-Peruvian mystic Úrsula de Jesús’s diary.

  • Lane, Kris. Pandemic in Potosí: Fear, Loathing, and Public Piety in a Colonial Mining Metropolis. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780271092263

    A timely and essential new sourcebook, Pandemic in Potosí is the first English translation of the fascinating account of the great Andean pandemic of 1717–1722, penned by the local (and irascible) historian Bartolomé Arzáns de Orsúa y Vela, along with shorter reports from Cuzco, Arequipa, and Lima. In Lane’s characteristically readable and engaging style of writing, the book explores the pandemic through multiple scales of analysis, deftly connecting the rich, local detail provided by Arzánz with global events that shaped the experience of Andeans living through this plague. Written for undergraduates, the book helps students understand the past and present intersections of health, religion, labor, gender, race, and, ultimately, the question of responsibility in the face of public health crises. It would be welcome in any number of courses related to the history of Latin America, as well as histories of medicine, religion, and disease.

  • The Recipes Project: Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine.

    An invaluable pedagogical resource, this interdisciplinary blog features peer-reviewed, teaching-centered essays on “recipes” (broadly construed) as they intersect with histories of food, religion, emotions, botany, medicine, and the body in Latin America and the Caribbean, along with other world regions. The essays are organized into thematic series and cross-indexed by subject material and author. The site also includes a growing Zotero bibliography and links to additional online manuscript collections and databases.

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