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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76.1 (2002) 143-145

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Book Review

Contaminación e insalubridad en la ciudad de México en el siglo XVIII

Martha Eugenia Rodríguez. Contaminación e insalubridad en la ciudad de México en el siglo XVIII. Serie Monografías de Historia y Filosofía de la Medicina, no. 3. Mexico City: Departamento de Historia y Filosofía de la Medicina, Facultad de Medicina, UNAM, 2000. xi + 206 pp. Ill. $15.00 (paperbound, 968-36-7271-X).

Martha Eugenia Rodríguez analyzes the problem of environmental pollution in the capital city of New Spain and its consequences for public health during the Enlightenment. In that period, Mexico suffered from chronically unsanitary [End Page 143] conditions: its streets and squares were littered with rubbish, excrement, and foul water; its cemeteries were incapable of providing adequate burial for the many cadavers left in the wake of epidemics; food-service establishments were filthy; and the potable water and sewerage systems were inefficient. In general, through the effective application of the historical method, this book describes the circumstances of everyday life and urban conditions related to public health in a densely populated city. Although the topic is examined in the context of the eighteenth century, it is very current, because these problems are still very present in the world of today.

Rodríguez uses primary sources (largely unpublished) from archives in Mexico and other countries--such as acts, memoranda, edicts, and even letters--to describe the history of environmental pollution and the chronically unsanitary conditions in the city of Mexico. Her book has eight chapters. In the first she discusses "miasmas," a concept that referred to contamination in general. "Miasmas" were considered the cause of many illness before the existence of microorganisms as etiologic factors gained general acceptance. In chapter 2 she describes the filthiness of the streets, and she makes it clear that urban filth was related not only to the government's deficient services, but also to the bad habits of the population.

Many details concerning regulations, specific situations, and urbanism in this section are especially valuable for those interested in the history of Mexico City. Garbage collection is studied in chapter 3, while chapter 4 analyzes the location of cemeteries. Today it is pleasant for tourists to visit these old churches and their graveyards, and it is difficult to imagine that for centuries they were dangerous sources of contamination and threats to public health, due to inadequate burial practices--especially during the crises caused by epidemics. The use and cleansing of latrines and the potable water system are discussed in chapters 5 and 6. The final chapter, "Hygiene in Public Places and Establishments," deals specifically with sites that still exist (markets) and others that were characteristic of the period (pork stands).

At the same time that Rodríguez describes these problems, she also speaks of the existence of a scientific community (made up of lawyers, physicians, and architects) that understood the relationship between environmental pollution and the presence of illness. It was this community that proposed solutions, looked for economic resources, and attempted to convince the population to modify its customs. It is a fact that public health programs existed in this period and that the government was concerned with cleansing the environment. The author points out that it was precisely in the eighteenth century that people became conscious of the filthiness of the cities and the danger this represented for public health. Public health programs were a joint effort of those in power and individuals who today would be described as "intellectuals." The former were in charge of carrying out the activities, while the latter contributed ideas based on scientific analysis. The author suggests that the association of science and power that would unfold in full splendor during the Porfiriato in the nineteenth century actually began in this epoch. It was also in the eighteenth century that [End Page 144] people began to pay attention to improving the construction of hydraulic installations...


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