August 1, 1998

Unraveling the History of Eugenics in Mexico

Alexandra Stern
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
University of Chicago


Interim Associate Director
Historical Center for the Health Sciences
University of Michigan Medical Center

Unraveling the History of Eugenics in Mexico

Reconstructing the history of eugenics in Mexico requires a great deal of archival detective work and a flexible definition of the term. While in the United States the most prominent eugenicists were usually trained in some specialization of biology or the still emergent field of genetics, almost all Mexican eugenicists were physicians educated at the country's premier medical school (La Facultad de Medicina). Eugenics was formed by this professional milieu -- which included hospitals, laboratories, public clinics, and private practice -- and shaped by unique historical patterns which included a tumultuous revolution, a strong attachment to tenets of French positivism and physiology, and scarce state resources for the development of science in general. Members of the Mexican Society for the Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis of Venereal Diseases (founded in 1908), the Mexican Society of Puericulture (1929), and the Mexican Eugenics Society (1931) dominated the National Academy of Medicine, the National Medical School, and governmental agencies of public health, education, and justice. Indeed, it is difficult to understand the remaking of the Mexican state following the revolution of 1910 without grasping the far-reaching influence of eugenic ideas, proposals, and laws. As in many other countries during the same period, theories of hereditary difference, attempts to control reproduction, and increasingly elaborate techniques of anthropometrics and biometrrics were central to doctrines of nationalism and citizenship. Since the papers of the Mexican Eugenics Society were disposed of long ago and those of other pertinent societies are nowhere to be found, any scholar seeking to study eugenics in Mexico must traverse many archives. In this essay I will describe the principal archival sources and explain their historical significance.

Historical Archive of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (Archivo Histórico de la Secretaria de Salubridad y Asistencia): This archive is the best starting point for reconstructing the activities of Mexican eugenicists. First of all, it houses one of the most complete collections of the second series of Eugenesia, the official publication of the Mexican Eugenics Society which ran from 1939-1954. The first series (1932-1935) is only available outside of Mexico, at the New York Public Library. Materials related to eugenics are scattered throughout this ministry's records since eugenicists were frequently in charge of the country's most touted sanitary efforts and prestigious departmental offices. Created or revamped as part of the post-revolutionary government's concern to modernize the public health system and protect society from endemic and epidemic disease, the Institute of Hygiene, the Campaign against Yellow Fever, and the School of Sanitation were all, at one time or another during the 1920s or 1930s, run by active or future members of the Mexican Eugenics Society. At first glance, these agencies might appear more related to bacteriology and public medicine than eugenics, but given that the majority of Mexican eugenicists espoused the neo-Lamarckian theory that acquired characteristics could be inherited, germs and genes were often viewed as cytologically interdependent if not synonymous. The motto of the Mexican Eugenics Society -- "for the improvement of the race" -- must be interpreted in these terms, as part of a broader public health agenda that often conflated hereditary, congenital, and contagious conditions.

As in other Latin nations such as Argentina, Spain, and Brazil, eugenics made its initial entrance into Mexico as "puericulture," the term defined by the French obstetrician Adolphe Pinard as "the scientific study of the child." Bemoaning France's declining birthrate and fearful of signs of increasing degeneracy among the body politic, Pinard had seized upon the term at the turn of the nineteenth century. As Nancy Stepan eloquently demonstrates in "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender and Nation in Latin America, an orientation towards French philosophy and medicine, the legacies of Catholicism, and skepticism towards many aspects of Weismannian-Mendelian determinism led many Latin American scientists and physicians to embrace and promote puericulture and the related field of homiculture (whose focus expanded to the human species as a whole). Following the contours of the French eugenics movement, many Mexicans embarked upon pronatalist campaigns to combat infant mortality and boost population density, eradicate dread diseases with potentially dysgenic effects, instruct mothers on every facet of efficient child-rearing, establish public clinics and milk stations, and monitor the development of the nation's children through the gathering of all sorts of biomedical statistics. The development of puericulture in Mexico is best documented by papers housed at the Archive of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (then known as the Department of Public Health), specifically the School Hygiene Service and Infant Hygiene Service collections. The doctors, nurses, and medical technicians who made up these two services had initially been brought together in 1921 at the First Congress of the Mexican Child, where they took part in the country's first formal conference sections on eugenics and puericulture. The delegates who converged upon this gathering -- including feminists, obstetricians, pediatricians, journalists, and engineers -- fanned out to different state and civic groups in the 1920s and were instrumental in incorporating new ideas of heredity, reproduction, and social and racial difference into public discourse.

Formed in 1920, the School Hygiene Service sought to establish standards of "normal" development for children of all ages, participate in international conferences on child welfare, enforce sanitary laws and building codes in the schools, and compile anthropometric data of pupils. Although only consisting of four boxes, the papers are nonetheless quite revelatory; showing, for example, that in 1922 a commission of school hygienists began the project of designing intelligence tests for use in Mexican schools. While in 1925 this Service was transferred to the Department of Pyschopedagogy and Hygiene at the Ministry of Education (see below), public health activities related to infants remained within the purview of the Department of Public Health. The establishment of the Infant Hygiene Service close to a decade later in 1929 demonstrates the growing importance of notions of puericulture and eugenics to post-revolutionary leaders. Decreed into law by president Emilio Portes Gil, the Infant Hygiene Service was entrusted with decreasing rates of infant mortality, inculcating a new ethos of "responsible motherhood" among Mexican women, and tracking the health of new-borns. Comprising nine boxes, the records of this Service contain some of the richest materials on puericulture and eugenics in Mexico. Included in the collection are puericulture manuals and courses, reports written by the directors of the Service's infant hygiene centers, medical charts enumerating patients consulted and diseases treated (including the ever-feared "hereditary syphilis"), and dispatches from visiting nurses hired to monitor the status of pregnant mothers. Correspondence shows that several months after this Service was formed its Director organized the first meeting of the Mexican Society of Puericulture, the organization which provided a forum for the physicians who would found the Mexican Eugenics Society just two years later.

Together, the papers of the Infant Hygiene Service and articles published in the Mexican Society of Puericulture's official journal (La Revista Mexicana de Puericultura) reveal that puericultors worked with the Civil Registry to enforce legislation requiring fiancées to obtain medical certificates before marriage. Mandated into law by both the 1926 Sanitary Code and the 1928 Civil Code, prenuptial exams became a rallying point for many eugenicists and puericultors who differed on other issues such as birth control, sterilization, and castration. Perhaps because attempts to make the premarital medical exam a fundamental requisite of participation in civic life failed miserably during the early 1930s, Socialist president Lázaro Cárdenas reissued the marriage law in his 1940 Regulations for the Campaign against Venereal Diseases. The public health agency that was responsible for drafting this legislation, the Anti-Venereal Disease Campaign Office, was comprised principally of well-known eugenicists. Records of its activities comprise close to half of the six boxes which make up the Anti-Venereal Inspection collection which dates back to 1867. Newspapers clippings indicate that the Mexican Eugenics Society and the Service organized gatherings to discuss the importance of abolishing prostitution, criminalizing venereal diseases, and enforcing prenuptial exams. Often written in a dramatic and triumphalist tone, these materials document a sui generis moment in Mexican history when political radicals, feminists, and moralists came together under the banner of eugenics to insist on a state-sponsored program of medicalized control. Although laws were often ignored and logistically impossible to implement, by the late 1930s public health discourse had fused eugenics, maternalism, reproduction, and nationalism in ways similar to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The admonition of the Director of the Public Health Department in 1936 -- that "every woman living in the territory of the Mexican Republic, having been born in it or only a resident, temporary or permanent, has the duty to contribute within the law and according to the principles of eugenics, to fomenting a strong and healthy populace" -- makes more historical sense after having examined and contextualized the papers of the School Hygiene Service, the Infant Hygiene Service and the Anti-Venereal Disease Campaign.

Aside from these three collections, the Ministry of Health and Welfare Archive also contains materials related to eugenics and puericulture in records of the Legal Service, the Section on Conferences and Conventions, the Personnel Office, and the Institute of Hygiene. During the 1920s and 1930s Mexican eugenicists were actively involved in most of the sub-agencies of the Public Health Department. Moreover, their concern with issues of procreation, child maturation, and state assistance was central to the creation of the Ministry of Assistance in 1937 (which later merged with the Department of Public Health) and most importantly, the Mexican Social Security Institute, founded in 1943. The eugenic legacy in Mexico is inscribed on the many buildings and institutes named after state-employed physicians who spent the formative years of their career as members of either or both the Mexican Eugenics Society and the Mexican Society of Puericulture.

Historical Archive of the Ministry of Public Education (Archivo Histórico de la Secretaria de Educación Pública): While puericulture and welfare programs aimed at increasing population density and raising health standards were carried out in the name of public health, similar medicalized projects were undertaken under the aegis of education. In the eyes of many of the post-revolutionary leaders, the key to creating a new state lay in seizing hold of the minds of citizens; throughout the 1920s and 1930s Mexico was characterized by a cultural project which stressed temperance, anti-clericalism, morality, the forging of national homogeneity and various aspects of racial hygiene. The governmental site for waging this ideological battle was first and foremost the Ministry of Public Education. Little studied in Mexican history is the role that the Department of Pyschopedagogy and Hygiene played in this process. The records of this department are voluminous -- comprising over 80 uncatalogued boxes -- and fascinating.

Created in 1925, the Department of Psychopedagogy and Hygiene was staffed by physicians previously affiliated with the School Hygiene Service at the Public Health Department. Building upon his knowledge of pediatrics, psychometrics, and neurology, Dr. Rafael Santamarina, who had spoken in the puericulture section at the First Congress of the Mexican Child, directed the Department of Psychopedagogy and Hygiene during the late 1920s. The records of this department include materials related to Santamarina's massive project of adapting foreign intelligence tests to the Mexican milieu. Convinced that the mental development of Mexican children had to be measured with instruments apposite to the "Latin" race, Santamarina translated and recrafted the Binet-Simon, Descoeudres, Stanford, Otis, and Pinter tests. He then sent young educators out to the field to administer batteries of exams, tabulate scores and determine quotients of various kinds. Contained in this collection are extensive monthly and yearly reports written by Santamarina's underlings, treatises on the development of school hygiene in Mexico, documents about Santamarina's role as national representative to the First Panamerican Congress on Homiculture and Eugenics held in Havana in 1927, essays by psychopedagogists on the distinction between subnormal, normal, and superior children, and correspondence with U.S. eugenicists such as Lewis Terman. Researchers can also peruse charts, curves, and graphs comparing intelligence levels according to "race" and gender, examine materials on physical culture and exercise, and read mimeographs by the department staff on the connections between criminality, alcoholism, and heredity. As in the Public Health Department, many of the active members of this department were members of the Mexican Eugenics Society or other affiliated organizations such as the Mexican Association of Sciences and Arts (Ateneo de Cienicas y Artes de Mexico). Further study of the Department of Psychopedagogy and Hygiene's myriad cultural, medical, and social activities is needed to better understand the intersection of eugenics, psychology, state-building, and education in modern Mexico.

Documents related to eugenics are also contained in the records of the Educational Radio Station founded by the Ministry of Public Education in the early 1920s. These archival materials reveal that the Mexican Eugenics Society broadcast a weekly a radio show in the early 1930s, speaking on themes such as the dire hereditary effects of alcoholism and tuberculosis, the need for state agencies to protect single mothers, and the patriotic obligation of citizens to submit to Wassermann tests for syphilis. Any scholar of eugenics in Mexico will also need to consult the official publications of the Ministry of Public Education which date back to the early century. Review of its bulletin, for example, indicates that the first article published in the country containing the word "eugenics" -- a translation of an essay by the British neo-Lamarckian eugenicist C.W. Saleeby -- appeared in this Ministry's monthly journal in 1905.

Historical Archive of the Medical School (Archivo Histórico de la Facultad de Medicina): While this archive contains a great deal of material that is administrative in content, it is an essential font for scholars who wish to trace the career biographies of Mexican eugenicists. Two sets of overlapping finding aids -- one chronological and the other onomastic and alphabetical -- allow the researcher to locate with relative ease course syllabi, student rosters, medical essays, annual reports and occasional personal correspondence. These materials show that by the 1920s sections on eugenics and puericulture were being offered in required medical school courses such as embryology, hygiene, obstetrics, and legal medicine; many others, including anatomy, psychiatry, surgery and general pathology were taught by members of either or both the Mexican Society of Puericulture and the Mexican Eugenics Society.

Another guide, for key medical faculty, also permits the researcher to obtain the curriculum vita of Mexico's preeminent physicians, many of whom studied abroad at schools such as Johns Hopkins University or the Pasteur Institute. In addition, of special interest is the personal archive of the renowned Mexican physiologist, J. Joaquín Izquierdo, who presented a paper at the Second International Congress of Eugenics held in New York in 1921 and was head of the eugenics section of the Second Congress of the Mexican Child in 1923. Izquierdo's career, which included study under and collaboration with Harvard physiologist Walter B. Cannon, is suggestive of the kinds of influences that shaped Mexican medicine. On the one hand, Izquierdo was trained before the revolution in a medical school profoundly influenced by the ideas of the French physiologist François Broussias -- a perspective with resonated with the Comtean positivism so in vogue at the time. On the other hand, when ready to travel abroad in the 1920s to be further mentored in his field, instead of following in the foot steps of his nineteenth-century compatriots, Izquierdo chose not to travel to France but to the U.S. where he was exposed to experimental physiology and genetics as well as the labors of the Eugenics Records Office.

Historical Archive of the National Medical Academy (Archivo Histórico de la Academia Nacional de Medicina): Although small, this archive is an invaluable resource for scholars of eugenics and medicine in Mexico. Researchers can consult record books containing minutes of the academy's regular meetings dating from the mid-nineteenth century as well as correspondence ledgers. These documents provide much insight into the changing composition of overlapping generations of physicians as well as of the importance of professional and private social networks to the production of scientific knowledge. The Academy's library houses obscure and historically significant periodicals, books, and medical instruments, many of which were donated by members. Dr. Everando Landa, for example, whose career in obstetrics and internal medicine spanned the early to mid-twentieth century and included membership in the Mexican Society for the Social and Moral Prophylaxis of Venereal Diseases, the Mexican Society of Puericulture, and the Mexican Eugenics Society bequeathed the library's shelves with a wide range of materials related to eugenics and puericulture. The exceedingly rare publication of the Mexican Society for the Social and Moral Prophylaxis of Venereal Diseases, La Cruz Blanca (1908-1913), is housed in the Academy's library. Researchers can also take advantage of the complete run of the National Academy of Medicine's official publication, La Gaceta Médica de México, which dates from 1836 and published the country's first articles on puericulture in 1903.

Other Relevant Archives: Researchers should also consult materials at the National Archive (Archivo General de la Nación) which is Mexico's largest repository and contains materials from the colonial and modern periods. Scholars interested in uncovering the role of eugenic and bacteriological language in Mexico's anti-Chinese movement should spend time with materials located in the collections of presidents Alvaro Obregón (1920-24) and Plutarco Calles (1924-28); similar documents recording Sinophobic and anti-Semitic agitation in the 1930s -- although only cursorily indexed -- make up part of general governmental files from the era. Pertinent documents are also available and easily accessible at the Historical Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Relations (Archivo Histórico de la Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores); included in their holdings are folders with proceedings from international medical and eugenics congresses. Finally, the adventurous historian will want to travel to Jalapa, Veracruz to examine collections at both the municipal and state archives. In 1932, under the governorship of Adalberto Tejeda, a social radical and strict moralist, the state of Veracruz enacted Latin America's only sterilization law and established a Section of Eugenics and Mental Hygiene. According to this piece of legislation state medical authorities had the right to sterilize individuals who suffered from epilepsy, alcoholism, or syphilis or were seen as threats to the social collective. Researchers should allow several weeks for investigation, however, since there are no finding aids or reference tools for most collections at the state archive (one year's worth of materials sometimes surpasses 80 large boxes). The holdings of the municipal archive are computerized and very accessible; a small segment of materials record local anti-prostitution campaigns and touch tangentially on the state's eugenic project. Finally, no research trip to Mexico is complete without a visit to the National Periodical Library (Hemeroteca). Attached to the National Library at the country's main public university in the southern part of Mexico City, the periodical library contains dozens of newspapers and journals relevant to the history of eugenics and puericulture. Just to mention a few, scholars should consult Criminalia, Pasteur, La Revista Mexicana de Biologia, Medicina, El Universal, and El Heraldo de México.

Final Remarks: Unraveling the history of eugenics in Mexico involves multi-site research primarily in medical and public health archives. Although post-revolutionary leaders of the 1920s and 1930s sought to legitimize themselves by calling upon science as a source of objective and secular truth, scarce pecuniary resources meant that the stuff of modern science -- sophisticated laboratories or streamlined medical equipment -- often remained a chimera. Largely for these reasons, experimental genetics did not take shape in Mexico until the late 1930s, and then only at agricultural institutes where biologists were attempting to hybridize new varieties of corn and chile. A starting point for the history of plant genetics is the archive of the National Agriculture School at the Autonomous University of Chapingo. It was there in the 1940s that Edmundo Taboada, who had studied with Ralph Emerson at Cornell University, began to offer genetics courses and train a cohort of students who would play a pivotal role in the "green revolution" of the 1960s.

The emergence of population genetics in the 1940s and 1950s was partially due to the studies of eugenicists and demographers who worked together at the Department of Indigenous Affairs, the Statistical Office of the Finance Ministry, and the Mexican Institute of Social Security. For example, in 1939 the Mexican Committee for the Study of the Population Problem -- created by the well-known state economist Gilberto Loyo -- met with the Mexican Eugenics Society to propose a biotypological study of the nation's ethnic groups and immigration policy. To date, no in-depth archival research in governmental agencies concerned with population and demography has been carried out. Even less studied, however, is the establishment of the Mexican Association of Human Genetics in 1968. In 1976 this association helped to host the Second Latin American Congress of Genetics in Mexico City; over the past twenty years its membership has grown to 400. While its links to the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s may be far from direct and linear, studying the composition, mandate, and research foci of this Association is critical to understanding how ideas of heredity and life itself have transformed over time in modern Mexico.

All of the key archival sources outlined in this essay are located in Mexico City. Because locations and hours change, interested researchers should search for up-to-date information on the World Wide Web (see, for example, the excellent site of the University of Texas at Austin, In addition, once in Mexico City, researchers should venture first to the National Archive (Archivo General de la Nación) where current data on all of the repositories listed herein is kept on file. The National Archive is located in the old Lecumberri prison, on Eduardo Molina y Albañiles Street, in the Colonia Penitenciaria Ampliación. Telephone: 795-7311. The closest metro station is San Lázaro on the pink line. After close to one year of dissertation research in Mexico City I found no site, mention, hint of the papers of either the Mexican Society of Puericulture or the Mexican Society for the Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis of Venereal Diseases. The papers of the Mexican Eugenics Society, retained by the society's founder and perpetual president, Dr. Alfredo M. Saavedra, were apparently quite extensive. Unfortunately, after Saavedra's death, a family member decided that the materials occupied too much space in the basement and threw the collection into the garbage. Saavedra's daughter, Aurora Myrna Saavedra, was able to salvage about 20 letters and receipts pertaining to her father's participation in conferences from 1930 to 1970. According to Ms. Saavedra, her father's correspondents included Paul Popenoe and Charles Davenport. (Author's interview with Aurora Myrna Saavedra, October 14, 1997).

Nancy Leys Stepan, "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991), 77.

Domingo F. Ramos, a Cuban eugenicist, defined homiculture as "the science which has as its object the research and application of knowledge concerning the reproduction, conservation and improvement of the human species." See his "Homiculture in its Relations to Eugenics in Cuba," in Scientific Papers of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, Vol. 2, Eugenics in Race and State, 432-434, 432.

On puericulture in Latin America see Stepan, 76-84; for France see William H. Schneider, "The Eugenics Movement in France, 1890-1940," in Mark B. Adams, ed., The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 69-109; Alisa Klaus, Every Child a Lion: The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 1890-1920 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

"Principios que profesa el Departamento de Salubridad Pública en favor de la infancia. Protección a mujeres y niños," quoted in José Alvárez Amezquita, Miguel E. Bustamente, Antonio López Picazos, Francisco Fernández del Castillo, eds., Historia de la Salubridad y de la Asistencia en México, Vol. 2 (Mexico City: Secretaria de Salubridad y Asistencia, 1968), 385.

See Mary Kay Vaughan's The State, Education, and Social Class in Mexico, 1880-1928 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1982) as well as her more recent Cultural Politics in Revolution: Teachers, Peasants, and Schools in Mexico, 1930-1940 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997). For a general introduction to the post-revolutionary cultural project see Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).

"Los Problemas de la Herencia," Boletin de Instrucción Pública V:5 (Dec. 20, 1905), 330-342.

On the overlapping epistemological framework of Broussais and Comte see Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (New York: Zone Books, 1991).After advanced study with Cannon, Izquierdo returned to Mexico determined to make experimental physiology the cornerstone of medical education. He translated Claude Bernard's An Introductory to the Study of Experimental Medicine and was responsible for establishing the National Medical School's Department of Physiology in 1934. (See Hugo Aréchiga, "José Joaquín Izquierdo, Impulsor de los Estudios de Fisiología en México," Ciencia, Universidad y Medicina (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1997), 213-226).

In 1923, Izquierdo related his enthusiasm for U.S.-style eugenics to the readers of Medicina, the journal published by the Medical School. See his "Necesidad de que en México emprenda el Estado estudios de Eugenesia," Medicina 3:32 (February 1923), 189-192.

An index for this journal is available and exceedingly useful. See Francisco Fernández del Castillo, Bibliografia General de la Academia Nacional de Medicina, 1836-1956 (Mexico City: Academia Nacional de Medicina, 1959).

See José Luis Meléndez Ibarra, "La Génetica Relacionada a la Evolución en México," unpublished manuscript, 1997.

See Luis A. Astorga A., "La Razón Demográfica de Estado," in Revista Mexicana de Sociología, (Jan-March 1989), 193-210.

Eugenesia, 2d. series, 1:1 (November 1939), 2-4.

Fabio Salamanca and Salvador Armendares, "The Development of Human Genetics in Mexico," in Archives of Medical Research 26, Supplement (1995), 55-62.

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