History and Illness
December 5, 2023
Traditional historical narratives sidelined health and disease. Textbooks and basic education history programs scarcely touched upon these themes as worthy of attention. However, in recent decades, more and more scholars have been producing high-quality research on the history of epidemics, medicine, and mental health, among others.
Still, those of us focusing on different aspects of history rarely consider these health-related facets. This situation somewhat mirrors the initial treatment of gender studies, once seen as exclusive to women's history or sexual diversity, not recognizing its potential to enrich understanding of social and political movements. For instance, Eric Van Young’s outstanding biography of Lucas Alamán portrays him not just as an intellectual, politician, and entrepreneur, but as an individual striving to be a 'good man'—a reliable family provider. Peter Guardino interprets the eagerness of many young men to go to war, partly influenced by their beliefs about masculine duties.
Perhaps it’s time to integrate the health/illness variable into studies of political, social, or economic history. Paulo Drinot, for example, recently shed light on José Carlos Mariátegui's disability and its political implications.
As a historian studying the political history of the early 19th-century México, I've noticed how Antonio López de Santa Anna frequently sought leave from the presidency, supposedly for health reasons, to retreat to his Veracruz estate. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a mere tactic to avoid governmental challenges. I once thought similarly about the frequent excuses made by elected men to avoid civic duties in councils or as deputies.
Recent findings in the Mexico Cathedral archives reveal numerous references to illnesses among canons and priests affecting their pastoral duties. These don't seem like mere excuses. Carlos María de Bustamante's diary contains many references to illnesses affecting him, his family, and numerous politicians of the time. Manuel de Mier y Terán, promoted by federalists for the presidency in 1832, battled constant fevers, leading to his eventual suicide. As the commander in the northeast, tasked with maintaining peace in Tamaulipas and Coahuila and preventing armed Anglo-American bands from seizing Texas, one wonders how his illness impacted his ability to fulfill these duties.
Illnesses affected the performance of politicians, military leaders, businessmen, officials, not to mention those working in agriculture or various trades. A few days of incapacity could threaten the livelihood of their families. Justice administration archives are filled with statements from women and men mentioning relatives' illnesses and the necessity to care for them. Illness impacted the economic conditions of families in the past, perhaps even more than today.
It might be time to reconsider our view that excuses due to illness were merely ways to shirk responsibilities. Understanding this could lead to a better comprehension of the political and economic performance of past societies.