From medical geography to germ theory in Colombia, 1860-1900
Garcia Lopez, Claudia Monica
Before the consolidation of the germ theory of human diseases at the end of the nineteenth century, medical explanations about disease causation were dominated by the environmental notions of medical geography. This dissertation explores how nineteenth-century Colombian physicians transformed the medical geographical approach using the early concepts and technologies of the emerging Pasteurian germ theory. I follow this transformation in the cases of periodic fevers (yellow fever and malaria), continuous fevers (typhoid fever and typhus) and leprosy. The analysis reveals that by mid century physicians had incorporated neo-Hippocratic versions of disease causation and French medical geographical ideas in order to make sense of disease of the warm, temperate and cold lands. Their conceptual network revolved around the specific, predisposing and occasional causes in which climate and geography played a determinant role. Evidence indicates that this was the case of periodic fevers of the warm lands (yellow fever and malaria). I argue that the “parasitic” hypothesis of yellow fever was accepted during the controversy around the prophylactic inoculations inspired by Pasteurism that were applied in Colombia in 1887. However, doctors struggled to reconcile the medical geographical and the bacteriological perspective of both yellow fever and malaria. Continuous fevers, on the other hand, were also framed within the medical geography scheme of disease causation. I show how during the debates about typhoid fever and typhus happening in the Colombian highlands during the 70s, 80s and 90s, doctors used medical geographical notions and developed anti-pasteurian arguments, while the international scientific community had identified the specific bacilli for typhoid fever. Finally, I argue that the strong interest of Colombian doctors on leprosy –also understood in neo-Hippocratic terms- that foster the search for local treatments based on Pasteurism (antiseptics in the 1880s and serotherapy in the 1890s) also prompted the extension of the bacteriological model and techniques to other diseases in those decades.