Few facets of Latin American history are more significant than medical history. Disease has been important everywhere, especially in the tropical lowlands and islands where there are so many people of wholly or partly African ancestry and so few Indians. Disease has been important in every period, especially in that first century after initial contact between Europeans or Africans and any given group of Indians, a period when the morbidity and mortality rate differences among the three were probably greater than at any other time. That first century is not over yet in parts of the Amazon Basin where today America’s last genetically and culturally pure Native American tribes wobble on the brink of extinction.
Americanists desperately need a good solid work on the medical history of Latin America. Unfortunately, Aspects of the History of Medicine in Latin America is not it. It is not even much of a contribution to the eventual production of such a work. Aspects is a collection of papers of wildly varying worth on scattered subjects, held together by little more than the glue of the binding. The authors, with a few exceptions, are not professional historians but physicians, and often seem to be unfamiliar with important secondary works. They might well be forgiven this if they compensated for their historical amateurism with original research and fresh insights drawn from their own experience, but they do not. They have uncovered little of significance that cannot be found in other secondary sources or, better yet, in detailed, dependable, translated, and widely available primary sources, such as those by Diego de Landa and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.
The authors have expended little effort on interpretation and less on relating the subjects of their papers to Latin American history as a whole or to events in the greater world. Aspects of the History of Medicine in Latin America is a depressing example of traditional medical history, i.e., of medical antiquarianism. It includes things of some use to the specialist—a discussion of two colonial documents by Charles R. Boxer, a narration of the Balmis expedition to Venezuela by Ricardo Archila, and compilations of Peruvian diseases and Maya foods by Francisco Guerra and Fernando Cabieses—but the volume is of practically no use to anyone seeking an overview of the medical history of Latin America.