- Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas–Mexico Border, 1848–1942 by John McKiernan-González
borderlands, vaccination, quarantine, health disparities
John McKiernan-González has written an excellent history of public health along the Texas–Mexico border from the era of Mexican independence until World War II. In fascinating chapters that cover the racial consequences of quarantines and vaccinations, Fevered Measures argues that various “public health campaigns provide a rich staging ground for encounters between medical professionals, political authorities, and working-class residents” (2). They also reveal the interplay of local, national, and international histories, as well as the making of ethnic, class, and political identities in the U.S.–Mexico borderlands.
To borderlands historians, McKiernan-González’s discussion of efforts by American officials to assert national sovereignty through the construction of one kind of border or another will feel familiar, as will his analyses of persistent discrimination against nonwhites, unpredictable alliances across racial and class lines, and tensions between actors operating on different geographic scales. But they will learn a great deal about how these issues were both cause and effect of broader changes within the public health profession. Likewise, historians of public health know about the movement of scientific discoveries between Europe and the Americas, the history of inoculation against various diseases, and the professionalization of public health during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Fevered Measures offers an enlightening account of how the border region often became a laboratory for experimentation by public health officials. By bringing these histories together, Fevered Measures provides several new vantage points for understanding both historical fields.
The notion of “medical borders” is a refrain that McKiernan-González returns to often. It complements recent borderlands scholarship on the multiplying geographies and meanings of boundaries between nations, groups, and individuals. In McKiernan-González’s conception of the term, quarantines were medical borders that segregated predominantly Mexican, Mexican American, and African American populations. Such was the case in 1882, when the U.S. Marine Hospital Service, in an effort to contain yellow fever, drew a quarantine line from Laredo to Corpus Christi, two cities in the Rio Grande Valley that were, and remain, heavily Mexican and Mexican [End Page 501] American. Medical borders also were drawn when American health officials vaccinated or revaccinated Mexicans at the border itself. More generally, medical borders also referred to racist ideas coated in scientific language and applied to people of African and Mexican descent. The medical borders in Fevered Measures, therefore, were flexible, marking and creating political, geographical, and ideological distinctions among groups. In sum, McKiernan-González argues that medical borders determined the boundaries between Americans and others.
Some of the most compelling passages of Fevered Measures deal with resistance against or cooperation with the infliction of medical borders. Quarantines, expulsions, vaccinations, and other treatments halted the flow of trade between the United States and Mexico and within affected communities, constraining the earning potential of their residents. Homes that belonged to nonwhites were destroyed, and they themselves were inspected, fumigated, stripped naked, bathed, stigmatized, humiliated, and revaccinated, all on “allegedly medical grounds” (13). Mexicans and Mexican Americans in turn rioted, protested, refused vaccination, filed legal challenges, or evaded inspectors by crossing borders (of quarantines or countries) at points where officials were not present. In response, American officials arrested many of them, charging that their resistance threatened American national sovereignty, and indicated that people of Mexican or African descent rejected American modernity itself.
As McKiernan-González demonstrates, however, nonwhites often protested precisely because U.S. health officials refused to see them as co-defenders of “medical modernity” (145). From the early nineteenth century forward, a “modernist impulse” led many Mexicans and Mexican Americans to cooperate with quarantines, vaccination campaigns, and other public health measures (11). Some worked to enforce quarantines or invited into their homes health officials who administered treatment. Demonstrating their belief in the effectiveness of quarantines and vaccination policies...