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Reviewed by:
  • Peripheral Nerve: Health and Medicine in Cold War Latin America ed. by Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Raul Necochea Lopez
  • David Carey Jr.
Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Raul Necochea Lopez, eds. Peripheral Nerve: Health and Medicine in Cold War Latin America. American Encounters/Global Interactions. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2020. xx + 356 pp. $29.95 (978-1-4780-0956-6).

A few years after U.S. doctors referred to Guatemalans as rabbits during United States Public Health Service syphilis experiments from 1946 to 1948, philanthropist Katherine McCormick depicted Puerto Rico as a “cage of ovulating females” during the 1950s birth control pill trials she sponsored on the island. Such manifestations of U.S. dehumanizing portrayals of Latin Americans perversely justified approaching them as subjects upon whom to experiment. Those examples [End Page 131] also suggest Latin America was a Cold War pawn. In recent decades, historians have turned away from such unilateral portrayals of U.S.-Latin American Cold War relations. By documenting the ways Latin American leaders, scientists, doctors, and urban and rural residents shaped their nations’ relationships with the United States and Soviet Union, Anne-Emanuelle Birn and Raul Necochea López similarly offer a corrective to dichotomous historical narratives that frame the Cold War as a struggle between two superpowers. As importantly, their edited collection Peripheral Nerve: Health and Medicine in Cold War Latin America injects the history of medicine into analysis of the Cold War in Latin America that Gil Joseph, Greg Grandin, Virginia Garrard Burnett, and others have so richly plumbed. With specific case studies across geographies, contributors to Peripheral Nerve demonstrate how focusing on health and medicine through Latin American lenses helps us to rethink the complex, multidirectional, and ever shifting ways the Cold War played out in Latin America, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Throughout Peripheral Nerve, authors explore the relationship—both real and perceived—between politics and science, ideologies and medicine. Even as medicine could appear neutral during the Cold War and avoid politics with its focus on “technical and humanitarian endeavors” (p. 269), as Birn and Necochea assert, public health is always political. In their analysis of how parasitology came to be associated with communism in Brazil, Gilberto Hochman and Carlos Henrique Assunção Paiva demonstrate that when Brazilian scientist Dr. Samuel Barnsley Pessoa increasingly asserted that “health issues [were] above all social issues” (p. 138), the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) marginalized and Brazil’s military government persecuted him. Although the Brazilian press similarly maligned Pessoa for his “medicopolitical agenda” (p. 149), journalists ultimately praised his work with schistosomiasis, suggesting medical science could rise above politics.

In her study of debates among Cuban psychiatrists about the merits of Freud and Pavlov, Jennifer Lambe similarly portrays the complex ways politics shaped medical science. Popular before the 1959 Revolution, Freudian psychiatry persisted thereafter even as Pavlovian (though not necessarily Soviet) models predominated by the early 1960s. As she traces the subsequent psychoanalytic plurality in Cuba, Lambe charts its politicalization.

While the Brazilian and Cuban examples offer concrete connections between politics and science, Nicole Pacino presents the case of Bolivia where perceptions of intertwined politics and science determined the nation’s access to international aid. Driven more by anticommunism than disseminating and improving medical knowledge and education, RF representative Dr. Johannes H. Bauer discouraged supporting the Universidad Mayor de San Simón’s medical school because its dean, Dr. Arturo Urquidi Morales, was an alleged communist. Lacking the nuance of Bolivians who recognized Urquidi not as a Marxist but “as a great Bolivian working effectively for a new society” (p. 63), Bauer effectively killed RF aid for the medical school even as the U.S. State Department subsequently funded public health programs in Bolivia. Anticommunism shaped international philanthropic organizations in ways that ignored local conditions and realities that such organizations sought to improve. [End Page 132]

Even during the height of the Cold War, Latin Americans could adeptly navigate tense terrain as Jadwiga E. Pieper Mooney demonstrates in her essay on socialized medicine in Chile. Chilean epidemiologist Benjamín Viel lauded Soviet models for maternity clinics and birth control materials while applying to capitalist sources to fund those projects (p...


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