History Professor Wins Prestigious NEH Grant
August 27, 2019
Earlier this summer, Assistant Professor of History Jethro Hernández Berrones won a highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). After a rigorous three-step review process involving specialists, NEH staff, and the National Council of the Humanities, the SU historian was among the mere 11% of approximately 1,000 applicants to be offered the coveted summer stipend. Hernández Berrones spent the summer using the grant to continue working on the manuscript of his book project, A Revolution in Small Doses: Homeopathy, the Profession, and the State in Mexico 1910–1942.
A history of medicine
The book project is excerpted and expanded from Hernández Berrones’s doctoral dissertation, which earned both the 2016 Pressman Award from the American Association for the History of Medicine and the 2015 Hans-Walz Prize from the Robert Bosch Foundation’s Institute of the History of Medicine in Stuttgart, Germany. In the manuscript, the historian examines the fascinating, complicated relationship between institutions of conventional (aka traditional, mainstream, allopathic, or scientific) medicine and homeopathic (aka alternative or complementary) medicine in Mexico during the early decades of the last century.
“I am interested in the ways in which what we today call biomedicine—also known as scientific medicine—sometimes opposes, sometimes aligns, sometimes cooperates with other forms of or approaches to healing,” Hernández Berrones explains. Broadly speaking, conventional medicine is what we typically think of when going to a primary-care physician, taking prescription pharmaceuticals, or undergoing surgery or other procedures in a hospital. By contrast, homeopathy belongs to a series of holistic healing approaches such as natural and botanical products, nutrition, acupuncture, massage, and mind–body therapies.
Given the long history of the opposition and integration of these two modes of treatment, Hernández Berrones focuses on Mexico specifically because it “is one of the few countries where homeopathy has a place among government institutions. … As a historian, as historians do, I asked, ‘Why?’” In his book, he narrows his scope further to two important medical schools that were established in the late 19th and early 20th century: the National School of Homeopathic Medicine (Escuela Nacional de Medicina Homeopática), founded in 1895, and the Free School of Homeopathic Medicine (la Escuela Libre de Homeopática de México), founded in 1912. These schools arose during a period when major allopathic medical schools and government health programs and agencies, such as the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Public Education, were also being established. Hernández Berrones explores the turbulent history of the two homeopathic schools, including the Mexican government’s early attempts to exclude holistic doctors from practicing medicine and the government’s later regulations of the homeopathic schools. He also delves into the theory and practice of both alternative and conventional medicine during the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, such as how doctors and homeopaths diagnosed illnesses, prescribed treatments, and were viewed by patients.
“In Mexico and in Latin American countries, in general, the presence of scientific medicine has been widely contested because these nations have a long tradition of traditional medicine on one side, and in the early 20th century, the vast majority of the territory did not have access to vaccination or antibiotics—let alone other, more recent technologies,” he clarifies. “On the other side, modernization in these countries happened mostly in capital or port cities, where elites dealt in ambiguous ways with traditional medicine. So I am interested in these intersections.”
The funding generously provided by the NEH is allowing the SU professor to complete the introduction and conclusion of his manuscript, clarifying his arguments and explaining why the book constitutes a significant scholarly contribution. He says that one of the most interesting aspects of his project is that the most sources he has had access to are from the detractors of homeopathy, which offer a rather skewed perspective on holistic-medicine practitioners. “These homeopaths were being accused of not knowing medicine, of killing their patients. But I also know, when I look at their education, that these homeopaths are doctors before actually being homeopaths,” Hernández Berrones remarks. “So to what extent can I pay attention to those sources, and to what extent can I hear the homeopaths? How I can read against the grain and pay attention to voices that may not be heard?” His book will lay bare the politics and class divisions that affected who could practice medicine and how during and in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (c. 1910–1920), which transformed the nation’s culture and government.
In the archives
As almost any researcher can avow, two significant difficulties of the dissertation-turned-book—like any research project—are the time and effort it takes to find, sort through, and synthesize sources. Hernández Berrones often shares an anecdote about the project with his Disease in World History class and his other Southwestern students. While working on his doctoral dissertation, he found the neatly cataloged archives of Mexico’s Ministry of Public Health easy to navigate and documents fairly easy to find. However, just a few years later, as a professor at Southwestern, when he decided to search for further materials about homeopathy and allopathy at the Ministry of Public Education, the collection—comprising thousands of boxes of documents—had been moved to a different facility, and government bureaucracy made gaining access to them much more arduous. The clerk he initially approached denied him access, assuming that Hernández Berrones was a member of the public and making excuses about how the documents were not yet properly processed. However, when the undaunted historian returned the next day, he managed to persuade the clerk to allow him to peruse the catalog, and he finally managed to gain entry to the reference room.
“The reason I tell this story to my students is that when you do history, you have to persevere,” he says. “If you’re looking for something, you have to find ways of doing it. I always joke, ‘Always bring some sort of present to the archives: a coffee or a packet of chewing gum—something. [The librarians] are your friends, but sometimes they need to be treated well to help you with your research. So persevere!’”
Of course, the catalog registered 800 boxes in each of the archive offices, with no descriptions to help Hernández Berrones determine what each box might contain. So the historian spent eight to nine hours a day, over the course of a month, painstakingly sorting through 10 boxes of folders at a time. He didn’t waste time by going out for lunch; instead, he’d munch on snack bars and drink water. “I keep telling students this story because there were days when I didn’t find anything at all,” he recalls. “Most likely, I couldn’t come on a follow-up trip, so this was my opportunity. Sometimes, I’d spend three days in a row just going through folder after folder, not finding anything, and then I’d find this one folder with 10 pages that contained some information about the school I was talking about. If I had one of those days, it was priceless.”
Eventually, Hernández Berrones was able to locate not only materials about the two schools he was researching but also documents on other schools that he hadn’t previously known about; he’s written about those findings in an article that will be published in a book next year. The lesson for students? Research requires patience and time—often more time than you expect—but the rewards of such productivity are also tremendous. “I keep telling my students, ‘I don’t want you to memorize it. I’m not going to ask you on exams for specific dates,’” he says. “‘In research, you need to learn how to skim, how to read for what is important for you, for what you find interesting about history. … And we spend time transcribing things to make them searchable and easier to read and look for in the future. Those are the skills history is about.’”
From scientist to historian
If things had gone differently, of course, none of this might have materialized—not the dissertation, not the book project, not the NEH grant. After all, Hernández Berrones originally trained as a biologist, earning his bachelor of science from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He spent years researching in a lab, even coauthoring and publishing an article on the effect of diabetes on glycogen metabolism in rat retina in the journal Neurochemical Research. But at the crux of deciding between a master’s in biochemistry or one in the philosophy of science, Hernández Berrones found himself questioning the impacts he could have if he continued on as a biologist.
“The reason why I wanted to do philosophy of science is I found my contribution to science in the lab very, very minimal,” he admits. “I went into the biomedical sciences because I thought that science would solve—like really, really solve—problems, like curing diabetes, like reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere. I thought that science was a tool for transformation, but I realized that that was not the case—as least not with my understanding as an undergraduate student.” So he elected to pursue an M.A. in the philosophy of science, a multidisciplinary program that exposed him to, among other subjects, logic, philosophy, history, the cognitive sciences, and scientific communications, and he discovered that history was his niche. He chose to specialize in the history of medicine because he was fascinated by the patient–physician relationship and how that has shaped the evolution of medicine just as much as the field progresses through scientific discovery and technological advances.
As a former scientist, Hernández Berrones feels that his earlier training does help him understand the jargon in medical documents, but he also had to adjust his way of thinking. “I think one of the transitions that took me several years to go through was trusting my historical actors in what I read,” he recalls. “I came to history with a strong certainty of science and therefore with a strong certainty that the scientific arguments that homeopaths were using were outdated.” However, throughout his extensive research, Hernández Berrones eventually realized that the science of the early 20th century was not the biology he had studied and practiced as a college student in the 1990s. “I started to become really empathetic with what my historical actors had to say about their time and not coming to the path with my own bias,” he reflects. “I had to learn how to think as a historian. … It transformed not just my scholarship but also me as a person.”
Recognition and gratitude
Whereas conducting historical research has transformed Hernández Berrones’s ways of thinking, this summer’s NEH funding has helped transform his ability to complete the book project. He expresses sincere gratitude for the grant and appreciates that his work has been endorsed not just by his colleagues at Southwestern University but also by scholars of the history of the health sciences specifically and of the humanities more broadly. He is particularly grateful because U.S. residents who are not citizens are not often eligible for research funding in the States. “I think that this particular program of the NEH is very significant and important because it allows international scholars to continue doing our research, and I think that is super. I am really, really grateful for that, and I’m very proud of it. … I’m really glad that I got this grant because it means recognition from everywhere!” he laughs.
Having also been awarded the Sam Taylor Fellowship by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry earlier this year, Hernández Berrones has been using his summer productively to present at a conference and seminar and to move forward with his other research projects, including a project examining the status of midwives in Mexico and another one on the experimental psychology of the first half of the 20th century. He looks forward to bringing SU students into those projects, training them to translate, transcribe, and read archived resources, which will enable them to develop their own academic interests that will translate into independent studies and capstone projects. “In the end, they can publish in journals,” he says. “I see research assistantships as a way of teaching future historians.”
A Revolution in Small Doses is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press. You can read his recently published article “Homeopathy ‘for Mexicans’: Medical Popularisation, Commercial Endeavours, and Patients’ Choice in the Mexican Medical Marketplace, 1853–1872” in the journal Medical History.