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The collective history of Latin American social medicine

Contemporary social medicine is a field of research grounded in the fundamental observation that health and disease cannot be fully understood in biological terms alone, motivating the research for the social processes underlying population health phenomena. Common concerns in the literature include the health inequalities, the epistemology of health research, the politics of global health, and the social history of medicine, public health, and global health.

Health as ‘more than a medical matter’ has a long European and Anglo-Saxon tradition emerging from 19th and 20th century scholars such as Louis Villerme (France), Rudolph Virchow (Germany), John Ryle (UK), and Henry Sigerist (US). As social medicine recognises that the rationale and practices of health are embedded in a particular context, it integrates various social science disciplines including anthropology, sociology, history, and geography, making it a prominent field of engagement for contemporary global health research.

In recent years, interest is growing towards situated epistemologies on social medicine emerging outside of Anglo-European contexts – making such research a ‘work-in-progress’. The seminar advances a critical analysis of the Latin American social medicine Association (ALAMES), particularly, its historical trajectory from the biographical accounts of the collective health members. The analysis unveils the social medicine militancy characteristic of the collective health movement in light of the socioeconomic and political turmoil of twentieth-century Latin America.

In essence, the second half of the last century in the region was characteristic of state violence, persecution, stigmatisation, repression and slaughter of socialist/communist leaders and academics. These leaders advocated for a radical transformation of the underlying structures of society in favour of equality, justice and solidarity – placing themselves in direct opposition to the authoritarian regimes of the time. The violence against left-wing partisans impacted the ALAMES collective in two ways. Firstly, the armed repression and political silencing of authoritarian states repressed the action of the social movements and populist strikes articulated with ALAMES. Secondly, political persecution also consisted of the direct attack to social medicine members, leading to the massive exile of intellectuals. The impact of this context upon social medicine crafted a particular type of persona within the collective deemed necessary to effectively act upon the immediate context of totalitarian regimes, systematic injustices and institutional oppression.

As a result, ALAMES assembled as an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-American and emancipatory collective characteristically applying the most ‘critical’ approach considered by the actors: Marx's historical materialism. The chapter explores the constitution of the ALAMES militant based on the integration of historical materialism and the imagined reality of Latin America at the time.



Sebastian Fonseca is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME) at the University of Zurich, funded by the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship. He is an international medical doctor (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Colombia) who completed an MA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics of Health (UCL, UK) and PhD in Global Health and Social Medicine (KCL, UK). His current research focuses on developing Latin American social medicine throughout the twentieth century, working around the thought style of the largest association in this field: ALAMES or the Latin American Social Medicine and Collective Health Association. 

Sebastian’s research interests are situated in multiple approaches to the social basis of population health. Specifically, local and situated epistemologies on health emerging from Latin American, Asian and African scholarship that speaks back to the predominant topics on global health, including the right to health, the social determinants of health, interculturality and decolonial perspectives on health, social justice and activism in health. His current work at the University of Zurich expands on the relationship between the history of public health in Latin America and the social medicine movement, the generation of knowledge from revolutionary efforts during the twentieth century, and the emergence of gender theories and feminism as research nodes in ALAMES. 


LSHTM Centre for History in Public Health


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