- Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848–1942 by John Mckiernan-González
John Mckiernan-González’s Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border looks at the contested area surrounding the U.S.–Mexico border as a prism into the mix of biological, cultural, and political factors shaping the social experience of epidemics. There’s much to grapple with in this book. Mckiernan-González takes on this complex topic over a long period of time and from multiple vantage points. His study crosses numerous divides including political states, space, class, and public/private spheres. Running themes that will be of particular interest to historians of medicine include patient–doctor encounters; practices of inspection, quarantine, and exclusion; vaccination; and sociomedical topics such as race.
Fevered Measures has a theoretical bent is rich with detail and compelling stories from the perspective of multiple actors. One of Mckiernan-González’s main goals is to explore how the history of public health sheds light on “the interplay of local and national identities” and in particular “the forging of ethnic identities at places where two nations staged and built their own changing identities” (p. 2). He introduces Mexican and Latino people to the historical narrative of U.S. medicine, and in so doing contributes to our understanding of the process of identity formation and definitions of citizenship.
The book is organized chronologically, which enables a close reading of the border zone and movement within it over time. Relying on a comprehensive array of sources (some quite creative, such as people’s official complaints against public health officials), the book begins with the 1847–48 border wars through the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the region in the 1880s. Chapter 2 focuses on quarantines of the 1890s; Mckiernan-González shows how both the U.S. and Mexican governments used public health campaigns to expand the power of the state. Chapter 3 looks at a smallpox outbreak among migrant laborers to Mexico and a vaccine research project. Chapter 4 examines the turn-of-the-century response to epidemics in the border region—leading to new methods of household inspection and quarantine—after the U.S. military occupation of Cuba and subsequent discovery of the yellow fever vector (with credit due to both Cubans and U.S. doctors). Chapter 5 examines the intersection of health and citizenship at a “quintessential crossroad” (p. 167): the El Paso/Juárez border crossing. Here medical and political debates played out, colored by rhetoric of race, labor, and control. Chapter 6 looks at Mexican approaches to public health during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) and how it contributed to political clashes between the two countries. Finally, chapter 7 examines the period 1920–42, including a close examinations of the Bracero migrant labor program, the creation of segregated communities in border areas, emerging Pan-American health networks, and the beginning of public health activism at the local level. In a brief Epilogue, Mckiernan-González makes it clear that there’s something special about the borderlands that throws big social, political, cultural, and national issues (such as state-building, immigrant [End Page 136] control, and labor relations) into relief. He underscores how people’s daily lives could be affected through loss of access to jobs, housing, education, or even free movement.
While the scope, analytical sophistication, and wealth of material in this book are breathtaking, almost encyclopedic, some readers might crave a stronger narrative. Yet, all will agree that Mckiernan-González demonstrates with abundant evidence how a close examination of the history of public health on the border is poised to shed new light on the intertwined history of health and immigration in a place that has been until recently overlooked or misunderstood. As Mckiernan-González states bluntly, “Mexicans, Mexican immigrants, and Mexican Americans should be included in the official...