Social medicine then and now: lessons from Latin America

Am J Public Health. 2001 Oct;91(10):1592-601. doi: 10.2105/ajph.91.10.1592.


The accomplishments of Latin American social medicine remain little known in the English-speaking world. In Latin America, social medicine differs from public health in its definitions of populations and social institutions, its dialectic vision of "health-illness," and its stance on causal inference. A "golden age" occurred during the 1930s, when Salvador Allende, a pathologist and future president of Chile, played a key role. Later influences included the Cuban revolution, the failed peaceful transition to socialism in Chile, the Nicaraguan revolution, liberation theology, and empowerment strategies in education. Most of the leaders of Latin American social medicine have experienced political repression, partly because they have tried to combine theory and political practice--a combination known as "praxis." Theoretic debates in social medicine take their bearings from historical materialism and recent trends in European philosophy. Methodologically, differing historical, quantitative, and qualitative approaches aim to avoid perceived problems of positivism and reductionism in traditional public health and clinical methods. Key themes emphasize the effects of broad social policies on health and health care; the social determinants of illness and death; the relationships between work, reproduction, and the environment; and the impact of violence and trauma.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Latin America
  • Public Health Administration / history*
  • Social Medicine / history*