Academic journal article Cuban Studies

"An Earnest Pledge to Fight Tuberculosis": Tuberculosis, Nation, and Modernity in Cuba, 1899-1908

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

"An Earnest Pledge to Fight Tuberculosis": Tuberculosis, Nation, and Modernity in Cuba, 1899-1908

Article excerpt

In September 1908, Dr. Joaquín Jacobsen, a Cuban physician and the president of La Liga contra la Tuberculosis en Cuba, addressed the Sixth International Congress on Tuberculosis in Washington, DC.1 Jacobsen was one of Cuba's recognized experts on tuberculosis and, as president of La Liga, among the most prominent leaders of the island's incipient antituberculosis movement. Beyond Cuba's borders, Jacobsen was well respected by colleagues in Latin America, the United States, and Europe, conferring with and visiting them to learn about advances in the long, frustrating battle against "consumption." Thus, when Ja- cobsen was named one of the congress's nine honorary presidents, joining a list that included some of the Atlantic World's most prominent tuberculosis experts, there could have been little surprise among his colleagues.

Jacobsen's featured role in the 1908 Congress was an affirmation of his individual merits. A member of Cuba's Academia de Ciencias, Médicas, Físicas y Naturales de la Habana, a onetime editor of the widely respected Revista de Ciencias Médicas, and a professor on the faculty of the University of Havana Medical School, he was a leader of the robust medical and scientific community that characterized turn-of-the-century Havana.2

Yet beyond a validation of Jacobsen's personal accomplishments and qualifications, his privileged place at the congress was a recognition of Cuba's antituberculosis movement in toto. Jacobsen was perhaps the most visible leader of the Cuban antituberculosis movement, a socio-medical crusade that emerged in Cuba just as the island's citizens, newly freed from the bonds of Spanish colonialism, were engaged in the complex process of debating the meaning of cubanidad. The anxieties expressed about tuberculosis in Cuba by many members of the island's medical and sanitary elites, including Jacobsen and the members of La Liga, reflected global and local beliefs that regarded disease prevention, treatment, and control as core functions of modern, civilized states. In this way, the campaign against tuberculosis in Cuba was simultaneously a public health undertaking and an opportunity to make and test claims about the island's incipient modernity.3 As such, it offers us an opportunity to examine the ways in which Cubans, during the earliest years of republican rule, negotiated issues of national identity and claims of modernity.

Claims about Cuba's modernity were key to debates about the nature of a new postwar, postcolonial cubanidad. The matter of defining cubanidad had been a regular topic of deliberation in Cuba throughout most of the nineteenth century. But questions of national identity seemed to take on new urgency in the aftermath of the War of Independence (1895-1898). The elusiveness of Cuba Libre, and the complicated nature of the relationship that developed between the island and the United States after 1898, forced Cubans into deep reflection and examination of the nature of what it meant to be Cuban. Medicine and disease figured prominently in early Cuban republican debates about cubanidad, and perhaps no single disease seemed to dominate the discourses of the time as did yellow fever.4 Yet for all of the attention and resources dedicated toward the control of the disease on the island, yellow fever barely registered on Cuba's mortality tables. While the disease certainly occupied the minds of North American civil, military, and medical leaders, few Cubans ever died of yellow fever. Instead, it was tuberculosis that claimed thousands of lives each year throughout the island, and most especially in Havana.

Surprisingly, little has been written about tuberculosis in Cuba during the colonial period or during the early years of the Cuban republic. The disease claimed hundreds of lives in Havana each year between 1899 and 1908 and it infected and disabled many thousands more. It exposed social ills ranging from the insalubrious conditions in Havana's slums to the occupational hazards inherent in the island cigar-making industry. …

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