Patricia Palma, PhD will speak on Thursday, March 17, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Palma is Assistant Professor at the University of Tarapacá, Arica, Chile. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.
Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?
Patricia Palma: I was born in Santiago, Chile’s capital, in South America. I did my PhD at The University of California, Davis, and regularly traveled to Peru while I was doing my research. In 2019, I moved to Arica, a Chilean city in the borderland between Chile and Peru. It is a small and fantastic city on the coast. Like many countries in Latin America, each region or province has a major public university. I work at the University of Tarapacá, the regional university where I am a head of the History and Geography career, in charge of undergrad students who want to be teachers or researchers in both disciplines. I teach undergraduates Latin American History as well as seminars to train students to do research with historical sources, especially in digital archives. I also teach a seminar in Latin America history from a transnational approach to graduate students. One of the seminars I usually teach is the history of health, focusing on epidemics and non-Western medicine in Peru and northern Chile. In the last few years, I have shifted my research to regional history, trying to understand how citizens have faced epidemics and public health policies, especially in regions far from the capital or centers of power.
My workday is intense; on a normal week I teach three courses, I have meetings with students regarding my classes and the administrative aspects of the career, I attend meetings with other colleagues, authorities, and my collaborative teamof TAs and research assistants in Peru and Chile. The current pandemic has seen a growth in the interest in pandemics in History, especially in places outside the global north. I am grateful for the interest in my work and research. I have received diverse invitations to write papers in journals and conferences. Currently, I am wrapping up the translation of my dissertation entitled “‘Science Can’t Save Me”: Public Health, Professional Medicine, and Medical Pluralism in Peru (1856–1935)” to publish it as a book. Hopefully, it will be ready by the end of this year.
CN: What initially sparked your interest in the history of medicine?
PP: Inequality in access to medical care is part of everyday life in Latin America, a situation that was aggravated by the recent sanitary crisis. My doctoral project started as a history of child mortality and moved to study how patients historically have used alternative medicines to combat diseases. In countries and cities where getting access to doctors and drugs is difficult and expensive even today, people are willing to try non-western treatments or non-professional doctors. The former include not only indigenous medicine but also foreign medical knowledge and products such as secret remedies, Chinese medicine, homeopathy, and mind therapies.
My research, especially from a regional perspective, seeks to understand these complex continuities between the roots and prevalence of distrust in doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, and contemporary issues and challenges in Peruvian medicine and society.
CN: Tell us a little about the central figure of your talk “George Deacon and the Circulation of Homeopathic Therapies in Peru (1880-1915).”
PP: George Deacon is a fascinating figure in the history of medicine in Peru. The personal information about him is scarce, but the few existing records show that he was an American citizen that earned a degree in homeopathy in Ohio in the 1870s. After his graduation, Deacon moved to Peru and began his homeopathy practice. He was not the first, but became the most important and famous homeopath in Peru in the late 19th century. He undoubtedly was a central figure in the discussions of the medical guild regarding alternative or complementary forms of healing. The School of Medicine responded to his increasing visibility and popularity, requesting the prohibition of Deacon to practice medicine in the country because he did not have a medical degree approved by local authorities. George Deacon was a disruptive force in the local medical market, questioning the monopoly of allopathy and practicing medicine in the Peruvian capital with the support of his patients, many of them part of influential local families.
CN: How was Deacon’s message about homeopathy received in Peru around the turn of the 20th century?
PP: In Latin America, the use of homeopathy dates back to the Wars of Independence. In 1817, the revolutionary general José de San Martín, who suffered from osteoarthritis and ulcers, crossed the Andes carrying his own homeopathic kit that a friend of his had brought from Europe. Within a few decades, homeopathy had gained the support of influential Latin American citizens, including in Peru.
Patients in Lima welcomed Deacon and homeopathy enthusiastically. They defended him from the School of Medicine, which sought to prohibit his medical practice in Lima. In the Peruvian Congress, supporters of homeopathy responded by arguing that the debate should not be about the efficacy of homeopathy, but about the freedom and tolerance of scientific knowledge. In addition, supporters of homeopathy and Deacon believed that guaranteeing professional freedom would attract more white immigrants to the country, during a period when where Latin American nations were desperately trying to increase immigration from European countries. Followers of George Deacon argued that during a shortage of medical practitioners, the School of Medicine should be more flexible, especially towards foreign doctors with medical degrees.
CN: Deacon published a homeopathic journal La Homeopatía in Peru in the 1880s. How did you locate it here at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and what did you learn by consulting it?
PP: First of all, I want to point out how grateful I am to the National Library of Medicine for giving me access to this rare material. One of the main problems with libraries and archives in Latin America is that important documentation cannot be found very easily; some documents are in a very poor condition while others have disappeared. During my research, I read that Deacon had published a newspaper in Lima, a rare piece that might allow me to understand the circulation of homeopathy in Peru, as well as the main conflicts that erupted during the period with local medical authorities. Despite an exhaustive search in Peru and Latin America, it was impossible to find any copies.
Reviewing the catalog of the NLM, I found two issues available, the only ones in existence worldwide, as far as I know. I was then in Peru doing research, and I did not have the economic resources to travel to Bethesda, despite the relevance of this source. I knew the NLM had a large number of digitalized documents, and I asked the rare book librarian with whom I connected—and who understood the relevance of this document for my project and how difficult was to get access to another copy—if I could receive copies for my research. In just a matter of days, he sent me the digital copies of both issues, which was crucial to complete my chapter on homeopathy and incorporate that aspect in my dissertation.
Patricia Palma’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.