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Report - Tropical Diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean: a historical perspective

Posted on 24 July 2015

A report on the high-profile, international workshop ‘Tropical Diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean: a historical perspective’ held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The University of York’s Department of History was well-represented at a recent high-profile, international workshop ‘Tropical Diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean: a historical perspective’ held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between 1-3 July 2015.

The workshop was organised by Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/ Fiocruz and the University of York as part of the British Academy-funded collaborative project ‘Public health policies and practice in the Caribbean and Latin America: a historical perspective’ coordinated by the Department of History’s incoming Head of Department Dr Henrice Altink. The three-day symposium focused on malaria, leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis, dengue, yellow fever and many other diseases that affected the people from that region in the colonial and post-colonial period.

Research Masterclass

A day before the workshop began the Department of History’s Dr Altink delivered a research masterclass to students of the Postgraduate Programme on History of Science and Health of Casa de Oswaldo Cruz / Fiocruz on the relationship between race and medicine. Dr Altink writes, “The masterclass was attended by researchers of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation as well as staff and PhD students from other departments at Fiocruz.  It explored the role of race in past and present medicine, centring on a written-up version of my conference paper, which explored the role that race played in the tuberculosis commission that the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Board ran in Jamaica from 1927 to 1942. The commission carried out research into the epidemiology of the disease, examined the efficacy of a vaccine of heat-killed tubercle bacilli, and also offered basic treatment to TB sufferers in TB dispensaries and a separate TB hospital. The masterclass finished with a discussion of the desirability to include one or more sessions on race on a core course of an MA in Medical History/Medical Humanities. This again sparked a lively debate and it was claimed that in certain geographical contexts this may be easier to achieve than in others."   


Amongst a wealth of interesting and innovative research papers (which benefited from simultaneous translation in English and Portuguese), each day began with keynote papers by noted scholars in the field: Steven Palmer (University of Windsor, Canada) on ‘Sternberg in Havana: Cuba's Pastorians and the Atlantic Bacteriology of Yellow Fever’; Rita Pemberton (University of West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago) on ‘Prelude to Rockefeller: Health problems in Trinidad and Tobago 1900-1930’; and Marcos Cueto (Casa de Oswaldo Cruz, Fiocruz) on ‘Tropical Medicine, International Health and the African office of the World Health Organization’. Dr Altink takes up the story: "Nearly 40 outstanding papers were delivered by scholars from Latin America, the Caribbean, the US and the UK. The conference started with a keynote lecture by Professor Steven Palmer (University of Windsor, Canada) which examined the transnational connections in the research on yellow fever in the 19th century, focussing in particular on the connections between Brazil, Cuba and the US. Other papers also demonstrated that much of the research on tropical medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was by nature transnational, such as Sabine Clarke’s paper on the colonial microbiological research institute in Trinidad after 1945. In addition to my own papers, various others equally addressed the role that race played in tropical medicine, such as the papers by Tara Inniss and Urmi Engineer on the discourse surrounding the alleged immunity of people of African descent in the Greater Gulf coast and the Caribbean against communicable tropical diseases, such as yellow fever." The full list of papers presented is available via the workshop webpage.

The University of York was well-represented at the workshop. The Department of History’s Dr Henrice Altink spoke on. ‘A Black Scourge?: Race and the Rockefeller’s Tuberculosis Commission in Interwar Jamaica’. Dr Sabine Clarke presented a thought-provoking paper on ‘Mobility, networks, and modernity: pharmaceutical knowledge at the Colonial Microbiological Research Institute, Trinidad, after 1945’. Professor Sanjoy Bhattacharya and Dr Alexander Medcalf of the Centre for Global Health Histories (part of the Department of History and a constituent member of Humanities Research Centre at the University of York) wrapped up proceedings on the third day with details on future project collaborations between the University of York and Fiocruz, and an overview of the WHO Global Health Histories project. Throughout the workshop CGHH’s bilingual exhibition ‘Picturing Tropical Diseases: Lessons from History’ was on display to delegates and copies of the accompanying publication ‘Tropical Diseases: Lessons from History’ were eagerly snapped up.

Rio’s meeting was the second in a series of international workshops which aim to explore historical perspectives in public health policies and practice in the Caribbean and Latin America (the first being held in York in 2014). The initiative was made possible thanks to Dr Altink’s British Academy International Partnership and Mobility Scheme Award, supported by the Centre for Global Health Histories (Department of History, University of York and also the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories). The workshop also followed up on the University of York’s wide-ranging memorandum of understanding with Fiocruz and is expected to encourage further future collaborations.

Professor Magali Romero Sá (Deputy Director of Research, Education and Science Communication at FIOCRUZ) said of the event; “The three intensive days of lectures and keynote addresses of the workshop on Tropical Diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean marked with success the partnership that the Brazilian Institution has with the University of York. It was attended by scholars and postgraduate students from Europe, US, Latin America and the Caribbean. The event celebrated the cooperation on research and education between Casa de Oswaldo Cruz / Fiocruz, and the University of York's Department of History and the Centre for Global Health Histories. We firmly believe that the success of this joint event will continue to be reflected in the cooperation between Fiocruz and the University of York. We are looking forward to the next event in the Caribbean!”

The third workshop will take place in Trinidad and Tobago in 2016. Further information and call for papers details will be released in due course.




Brazil Workshop Panel Photo

Credit: Roberto Jesus Oscar


Dr Henrice Altink

Credit: Roberto Jesus Oscar


Brazil Workshop Exhibition

Credit: Roberto Jesus Oscar


Brazil Workshop Henrice Panel Photo

Credit: Roberto Jesus Oscar