- The Sanitation of Brazil: Nation, State, and Public Health, 1889–1930 by Gilberto Hochman
This translation brings to the English-language reader Gilberto Hochman's important 1998 study of the development of public health in Brazil during the First Republic. Hochman meticulously describes how the country created a centralized health system, in spite of the facts that Brazil had a federalist charter and that local elites jealously guarded their political power. He also illustrates how public health initiatives forced the revisiting of the federalist framework of the constitution of 1891 and was ultimately important to state formation in the country. This book is an overdue and essential contribution to the literature in English on the history of health, state formation, and Brazilian political and social history. [End Page 431]
Hochman draws from the work of sociologists Abram De Swaan and Norbert Elias, among others, to create a theoretical framework for understanding the interdependence among regions that ultimately made a national health program both attractive and necessary to Brazil's ruling class. Essentially, because contagious diseases could not be contained within territorial boundaries, states and cities required various types of collaboration in health matters. Urbanization, labor migration, immigration from abroad, early industrialization, and Brazil's increasing importance internationally all brought people into closer contact and contributed to changing attitudes toward national hygiene. Individual solutions, such as the rich guaranteeing the quality of their own food supply or fleeing illness, or leaving medical issues to charity and voluntarism, gradually were seen to be inadequate to deal with the enormity of disease in Brazil under these new conditions.
Hochman sees the push for "sanitizing" Brazil as coming primarily from the economic and social elite, although he does mention that "public opinion" at various points was "increasingly troubled by health matters" (69). Much of the momentum for nationalizing public health in Brazil came from public health doctors who focused on the country's abysmal health conditions, worst in rural areas. A 1912 report by Arthur Neiva and Belisario Penna of a health and scientific expedition into the sertão described the illness and neglect of the rural population. In 1916, Miguel Pereira gave a powerful speech at the National Academy of Medicine in which he compared Brazil to a vast hospital. Although some believed these assessments of the country's hygienic situation were exaggerated, the appeals found a receptive audience in the federal legislature where in 1918–20 some 15 percent of the deputies were medical doctors.
Much of this book focuses on the incremental means by which public health became "collectivized," or national, despite the federalism of the country's constitution. This achievement essentially involved compromise among political actors who recognized the dire health situation but held different attitudes toward federal intervention. As Hochman explains, it became in the end a question of weighing costs against benefits. Was the loss of some local autonomy a small price to pay for national help with epidemic disease? Was the expense to the federal government affordable if it meant keeping diseases in impoverished rural areas from spreading to the Federal District and the other populous cities?
The gradual movement toward a cooperative arrangement was indeed encouraged by outbreaks of epidemic disease, especially yellow fever, but also the Spanish flu, which affected people of all classes and which most states could not handle alone. Particularly impoverished states were among the first to be attracted to forming voluntary bilateral agreements with the newly formed National Department of Public Health. As Hochman describes it, "a national public health infrastructure was gradually creeping in through doors pushed open by rural sanitary agreements" (114). This infrastructure eventually included infant and child care as well as measures to police food safety.
The one state that consistently did not participate in the process of centralization was São Paulo, which had long had its own advanced public health system. In some [End Page 432] ways...