From Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to the Andes: Physicians and Soldiers in Early Nineteenth Century Argentina

By Kapelusz-Poppi, Ana Maria | The Historian, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

From Massachusetts and Pennsylvania to the Andes: Physicians and Soldiers in Early Nineteenth Century Argentina


Kapelusz-Poppi, Ana Maria, The Historian


GUILLERMO COLESBERRY RAWSON (1821-1890) is often regarded as the father of public health in Argentina. But before becoming a renowned champion of the community's physical wellbeing, Rawson had a productive and influential career as a politician. (1) The son of a North American physician who had arrived in 1818 in the United Provinces of South America--as Argentina was originally named in its 1816 Declaration of Independence--Guillermo Rawson spent his early years in San Juan, a remote province in the foothills of the Andes mountains. (2) Trained as a physician at the University of Buenos Aires in the early 1840s, Rawson became a representative in the local legislature upon his return to his hometown in 1844.

In 1856, he was elected as the province's representative to the National Congress. Six years later, in 1862, President Bartolome Mitre brought Rawson into his cabinet as Minister of the Interior, a role that gave him responsibility for all domestic matters. (4) But after he was passed over, as he saw it, as a candidate to succeed Mitre, Rawson resigned his cabinet position in 1868. Rawson returned to government in 1875, elected as a national senator. (5) By then, however, his interests had shifted to the world of academia: In 1873, he had become the Chair of Hygiene at his alma mater. (6)

Early biographers of Guillermo Rawson explained his distinguished career as the result of the upbringing he received from his father, Aman Rawson. For biographers like Jacob Larrain, Domingo F. Sarmiento, and Eliseo Canton, one of the most important elements in Guillermo Rawson's upbringing derived from his father's Anglo-Saxon ancestry. In the words of Sarmiento, the most famous Argentine admirer of the United States, and Guillermo's contemporary: "... The father of Senor [Guillermo] Rawson... is a North American and he [Guillermo Rawson] has received a [remarkable] education owing to that." In the words of Doctor Eh'seo Canon, Aman Rawson had bequeathed to his family "the austere Anglo-American values." (8)

The question that Rawson's nineteenth-century biographers did not ask, however, was why a talented young physician like Aman Rawson would leave Massachusetts to settle in poor, isolated San Juan. And, perhaps more importantly for our understanding of the motives of professionals relocating to nineteenth-century Argentina, what factors led him to settle and stay in San Juan? The area not only had few resources, but was also remote. Over 600 miles, which took nearly a month to cross, separated it from Buenos Aires. (9) To the west, Chile was much closer, but the Andes Mountains between them were impassable during the winter and a mighty obstacle even during warmer months. (10) Moreover, a small, traditional elite monopolized material resources and political decisions.

In answering these questions, this paper argues that when he arrived in Argentina, Aman Rawson was a skilled military surgeon with little to lose. Determined and entrepreneurial, he seized on the political and economic opportunities that a country at war offered to those able enough to profit from them. Although Aman Rawson called himself a doctor, he had not attended university or earned an academic doctorate, a situation that put him at some disadvantage in his hometown, as personal status and income were based on an individual's education. (11) In fact, right after finishing his training as an apprentice at a nearby doctor's office, he joined the U.S. Navy as a military surgeon. (12) This was a difficult and often dangerous position usually taken by those who found no better jobs. To make matters worse, Aman Rawson would be unemployed soon afterward. By the mid-1810s, with the end of both the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812--a confrontation between Great Britain and the United States--on-board military surgeons were dismissed or put on reduced salaries. Under these circumstances, the former Spanish colonies in South America seemed promising. …

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