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date: 29 February 2024

Eugenics in Latin Americafree

Eugenics in Latin Americafree

  • Alexandra Minna SternAlexandra Minna SternDepartment of History, University of Michigan


Eugenics emerged in Latin America in the early 20th century on the intellectual foundations of 19th-century social Darwinism and positivism, and expanded in contexts influenced by Catholicism, nationalism, and transnational scientific exchange. Although the extent and objectives of eugenic policies, practices, and organizations varied across the region, Latin American eugenicists tended to subscribe to neo-Lamarckian principles of environmental modification, foreground puericulture or infant and maternal care, and support new techniques of human measurement associated with biotypology. Overall, eugenics in Latin America was less extreme than in Anglo and Nordic countries, rarely resulting in sanctioned policies of compulsory sterilization or euthanasia. It was an integral component of programs designed to combat infectious ailments, especially sexually transmitted diseases, and to ameliorate national health indicators. This overlap meant that eugenics sometimes was less visible as a stand-alone movement, and that its tenets were absorbed with little friction into public health and social welfare infrastructures and campaigns. At the same time, eugenic racism was expressed in calls for immigration restriction that reverberated across Latin America, most notably in the 1910s and 1920s. In retrospect, eugenics in Latin America contributed both to exclusionary policies that stigmatized certain social groups and to overarching campaigns for health and wellness that were backed by a diverse political spectrum that could include feminists, Socialists, and military leaders.


  • Cultural History
  • Social History
  • Science, Technology, and Health

The Emergence of Eugenics

Sir Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883, combining the Greek eu (good or well) with the root of genesis (to come into being, be born) and adding a suffix. Over time, Galton fine-tuned his definition, and in 1909 described eugenics as a science that “deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race, also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.”1 Galton formulated eugenics as an interventionist science that would encourage breeding among society’s putatively superior classes and discourage procreation among those classified as inferior. However, he provided few details about actionable policies or legislation.

By the early 20th century, as processes of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration intensified around the globe, many social reformers became enamored of eugenics and began to apply ideas of heredity and biological improvement to their own cultural milieus. Advancing work in statistics and biometrics, the 1900 “rediscovery” of Mendel’s pea plant experiments and the solidification of classical genetics contributed to the growth of eugenics movements.2 In Latin America, these forces played a critical role in stimulating interest in eugenics. Yet the intellectual and scientific bedrock laid down in previous decades by both European scientific influences and what one scholar has called “creole science” set the stage for the extension of eugenics into the arenas of medicine, public health, law, and the social sciences.3 By the 1910s, professional societies devoted to eugenics began to appear throughout Latin America, and public health departments and initiatives increasingly bore a eugenic stamp. Subsequent decades saw the implementation of an array of laws and practices shaped by hereditarian ideas of racial and reproductive fitness. Into the 1950s, eugenics was a critical facet of social hygiene and welfare throughout Latin America; many of its legacies are palpable today even as its signature features of racial bias and reproductive control often are viewed as undemocratic and antithetical to human rights.

Race, Nation, and Mestizaje

Initially, eugenic ideas were most evident in debates about race and nationalism, as elites across Latin America considered possible pathways toward modernization and the coveted goal of “progress.” Latin American elites often found themselves in the paradoxical position of employing the tools of imperial science, which were saturated with assumptions of racial purity and racial hierarchies, to imagine how their mixed-race societies could become modernized and biologically robust. Approaches to this dilemma differed from country to country. Some intellectuals placed their hopes on the hybrid vigor of the mestizo/mestiço, while others remained wedded to an implicit or explicit privileging of whiteness.

This variation is illustrated by comparing how Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile tackled the racial question at the outset of the 20th century. In Mexico, during the reign of Porfírio Díaz (1876–1910) a cadre of intellectuals known as científicos drew from Comtean positivism and social Darwinism to anxiously envision a Europeanized society that would trend toward whiteness in phenotype and culture. From the perspective of most científicos, people with indigenous, African, or Asian ancestry were roadblocks to progress that either should be excluded or wholly absorbed into a whitening body politic.4 In the early 20th century, this rendition was challenged by a generation of revolutionary literati such Andrés Molina Enríquez, whose 1909 book Los grandes problemas nacionales rejected the veneration of whiteness and instead elevated the mestizo as the superlative type that would lead Mexico stalwartly forward. José Vasconcelos popularized this viewpoint as part of post-revolutionary doctrine in the 1920s with the publication of his well-known book La Raza Cósmica.5 In fin-de-siècle Brazil, these countervailing positions vied for intellectual dominance, as thinkers such as Sílvio Romero, Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, and Euclides da Cunha fretted about the implications of miscegenation and its impact on Brazil’s prospects for entering the pantheon of civilized nations. While Romero was sanguine about the future of the resilient Brazilian mestiço, da Cunha was more skeptical about the ability of the more isolated backlanders (or sertanejos) to fully acculturate into modernizing Brazilian culture.6 These dueling positions continued to characterize Brazilian eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s, as it oscillated from championing racial democracy to excoriating certain nationalities and ethnic groups.7

In Chile, many prominent intellectuals regarded European immigration as the catalyst for demographic betterment. However, the ideas of scientists such as Nicólas Palacios provided an increasingly attractive counterpoint. Palacios, a physician, was buoyant about his country’s mixed-race future, providing a detailed profile of the virtues of la raza chilena, an amalgam that combined European ancestry with the regal stock of the Mapuche Indians.8 In Argentina, where indigenous- and African-ancestry populations comparatively were much smaller, whiteness and modernization remained largely inseparable. Leaders formulated policies that heavily promoted immigration from certain countries in Europe, with a preference for Anglo and Nordic nations, and over the decades sought to restrict arrivals from southern Europe and Asia, with pronounced animus toward Jews and Chinese.9 Whatever tact they took toward the questions of race, nation, and mestizaje, leading intellectuals across Latin America applied the frameworks of evolutionary, and increasingly eugenic, theories to imagine pathways of societal improvement.

There were two overarching trends at play in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s. On one hand, Latin American countries enacted immigration restrictions against blacks, Jews, Southern Europeans, Asians, and those deemed dysgenic and/or diseased.10 Sometimes these were issued as outright bans, as with Brazil’s 1937 visa exclusions of persons of “Semitic origin,” and sometimes as confidential circulars, as was the case with Mexico’s 1926 bans on gypsies and persons who constituted “a danger of physical degeneration for our race.”11 However, in nations that bemoaned dropping fertility rates and evinced a dire need to increase the population in terms of “quality and quantity,” limiting entrants was a tricky strategy met with equal amounts of accord, ambivalence, and opposition. Depending on the time and region, Latin America eugenicists were as likely to embrace a pronatalism predicated not on the influx of desirables from afar but on greater propagation of superiors from within. Especially after the 1920s, there was growing acceptance that mixed-raced populations had great eugenic potential. How to extract the eugenic diamond from the hereditary rough was one of the most pressing questions for many Latin American eugenicists, who chose distinct practices and policies to address this formidable challenge.

Contours and Influences

Although eugenics had heterogeneous proponents in Latin America, including lawyers, educators, social scientists, and life scientists, the majority were health professionals, most commonly physicians with an awareness of the interplay between health and society. Whatever their political persuasion, these physicians tended to view social problems through a hereditarian lens, concerned that transmissible “racial poisons” would defile coming generations. Given long-standing French influences in science and medicine, the pervasive albeit uneven reach of Catholicism, and a tradition of faith-based eleemosynary organizations, emergent eugenicists were primed to adapt the scientific theories of Jean Baptiste Lamarck, which posited that inherited traits could be acquired. In the same way that the giraffe’s neck grew longer as it stretched to reach the leaves of acacia trees, biological organisms could be modified, for better or worse, by their surroundings. Lamarckism held sway in the Americas and parts of Europe, and served as a foundational pillar for the making of what scholars refer to as “Latin eugenics.”12

As Nancy Leys Stepan showed in her path-breaking The Hour of Eugenics, and scholars have continued to demonstrate, although Lamarckian eugenics might have been “softer” when compared to its Mendelian cousin, it could still undergird immigration and marriage restrictions.13 Stepan introduced the term preventive eugenics to describe the Latin American variant of eugenics, and this rubric has proven analytically resilient ever since. Preventive eugenics supported interdictions and prohibitions. Its Lamarckian logic, however, offered good reason for optimism: if the environment could be made more salubrious, then even downtrodden populations could be improved through efforts to stamp out degenerating diseases, enhance the health of mothers and infants, and encourage good nutrition and physical fitness.14

By the mid-20th century, the Lamarckian theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics had been refuted, and supplanted by Mendelism, which sustained that hereditary traits were transmitted across generations with no possibility of environmental alteration. Today, Lamarckism is viewed as an inaccurate theory of adaption and evolution, even though epigenetics clearly shows that genes can be affected by exogenous inputs such as radiation, carcinogens, or the nutritional status of the intrauterine environment. Nevertheless, the triumph of Mendelism was not a straightforward process. Even in the Anglo and Nordic countries where it found greater purchase, Mendelism unfolded alongside gentler approaches to heredity such as euthenics and constitutional medicine. Both strains of eugenics—Lamarckian and Mendelian—banked on technoscientific solutions to fix perceived social problems, yet they bifurcated when it came to the elimination of adverse genes through systematic state-sanctioned programs such as sterilization or euthanasia. To date, there is no evidence that “mercy killings” of so-called defectives (infants or adults) occurred in Latin America, and an autochthonous sterilization policy became law solely in one place, Mexico’s eastern state of Veracruz.

Despite the ascendancy of Lamarckism, Latin America was not devoid of Mendelian ideas. At various points in the first half of the 20th century, eugenicists in Cuba, Brazil, and Mexico invoked Mendelian theories of unchangeable heredity, often wielding them to endorse immigration restriction and surgical sterilization, and, on rare occasion, selective euthanasia. For example, in his 1929 Licoęs de Eugenia, Brazilian Renato Kehl denounced racial intermixing and proposed anti-miscegenation marriage laws as well as the “sterilization of degenerates and criminals,” a strategy he agreed was “radical” but “often necessary.”15 This kind of rhetoric was spoken by a minority of Latin American eugenicists, at times adding a harder discursive edge to proposed measures and at other times serving as a foil for the articulation of policies more in keeping with Lamarckian approaches.

Figure 1. Portrait of D.F. Ramos.

Source: Eusebio Hernández y Pérez and Domingo F. Ramos, Homicultura (Habana, 1911).

The Cuban eugenicist Domingo Ramos (Figure 1) was the foremost example of the Mendelian orientation in Latin America. Ramos maintained a close relationship with U.S. eugenicists, above all Charles Davenport, who directed the Eugenic Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Ramos attempted to transplant U.S. eugenics to Cuba and Latin America.16 He headquartered his efforts at the Pan American Central Office of Eugenics and Homiculture, which he founded under the auspices of the Pan American League in the 1920s. This organization convened its inaugural meeting in Havana in 1927, attracting representatives from fifteen countries. At this point, Argentina and Brazil had active eugenics organizations, whereas efforts in Guatemala and Bolivia were limited to infusing hereditarian ideas into public health and welfare programs.17 Ramos presented the “Code of Eugenics and Homiculture,” which he had drafted with Davenport and which came as close to replicating U.S. eugenic priorities as any proposal that circulated among Latin American eugenicists. This wish list, replete with policies associated with negative eugenics, was debated intensely. Ultimately, the majority of Latin American eugenicists rejected its recommendations, bristling at the theories of white superiority that underlay calls for immigration quotas and balking at the scientific rationales for compulsory sterilization. This debate reoccurred at the Second Pan American Conference of Eugenics and Homiculture, held in Buenos Aires in 1934, where a similar proposal met even harsher resistance.

Eugenic Organizations and Networks

There was sparse Latin American participation at the three major international eugenics conferences that occurred in 1912 (London) and New York (1921 and 1932). Mexico sent delegates to the first and second meetings, but only Ramos, Davenport’s acolyte, attended all three. To a great extent, this reflected the ideological divergence between U.S. and West European eugenicists and their Latin American counterparts. To carve out their own national programs and build a transnational network, Latin Americans participated in a range of eugenic organizations—some of which proudly carried the term eugenics in their names, others that pursued eugenic objectives in their work, and others whose interests were distinct but overlapped with hereditarianism. The 1910s saw the establishment of several organizations representative of the first two categories, including the National Homiculture League in Cuba (1913), the Argentine Eugenics Committee (1914), the Argentine Eugenics Society (1918), and the short-lived São Paulo Eugenics Society (1918). Organizational activity continued in the 1920s with the establishment of the Argentina League of Social Prophylaxis (1921), the Brazilian Mental Hygiene League (1923), the National League of Hygiene and Social Prophylaxis in Peru (1923), and the Mexican Puericulture Society (1929). A subsequent wave of groups appeared in the 1930s with the founding of the Mexican Eugenics Society for the Betterment of the Race (1931), the Brazilian Central Commission of Eugenics (1931), and the Argentine Association of Biotypology, Eugenics and Social Medicine (1932). During the 1940s this pattern came to a close with the founding of the School of Integral Eugenics and Humanism in Argentina’s Population Institute (1943) and the wartime resurrection of the Argentine Eugenics Society (1945). There was a much longer list of organizations with eugenic interests in the fields of mental hygiene, children’s health, reproductive health, and criminology, just to name a few. Reflecting the sexism of the professional world, most eugenicists were men. Nonetheless, several women held leadership positions. In Mexico, the psychiatrist Matilde Rodríguez Cabo ran the Child Psychology Department at the National Asylum in Mexico and was very active in the Mexican Eugenics Society. In Peru, Irene Silva de Santolalla, a Catholic mother, wife, and homemaker who penned advice books for women about “well-constituted families,” promoted puericulture through education, served as vice-president of the National League for Hygiene and Social Prophylaxis, and received international accolades for her eugenic endeavors.18 Many more women fostered and sustained eugenics as nurses, teachers, and civic volunteers.

In addition to these nationalist groups, there were Pan-American and Latin eugenics organizations founded in the 1920s that served as networks of expertise and scientific exchange. At the forefront of this list were the Pan American Congresses on Eugenics and Homiculture, held in Havana (1927), Buenos Aires (1934), and Bogotá (1938), although this final gathering near the eve of World War II appears to have been quite subdued. On the global scale, the Latin Federation of Eugenics Organizations reached beyond Latin America to include organizations that scoffed at Anglo-Saxon or Nordic approaches to eugenics. Established in 1935, this federation counted representatives from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Catalonia, France, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Romania, and Romandie.19 In 1937, it held its sole meeting in Paris. This international body adhered to a self-proclaimed “Latin” eugenics, but this did not make its perspective monolithic. There were considerable, sometimes acrimonious differences around the issues of reproduction, sexuality, and immigration. What member countries shared were deep-rooted traditions of Catholicism and stronger or looser attachments to Lamarckian theories of heredity.

In addition to organizations and conferences, there were many vocal advocates of eugenics who held positions of authority in politics, medicine, or law. For example, in Peru, renowned professor of hygiene and Lima congressman Carlos Enrique Paz Soldán lobbied for and then served as director of the Board for the Defense of Children, and later of the National Child Institute, both of which were epicenters of puericulture work.20 Trained as a physician, Paz Soldán effectively translated eugenics into medical clinics and public health programs.21 Paz Soldán was instrumental in the convening of two important conferences on eugenics in Peru in 1939 and 1943, the second of which, even in the midst of World War II, drew physicians and reformers from a dozen countries.22 He championed puericulture and the biological vigor of mestizo populations, and his resounding endorsement helped to cohere these as core principles of Latin America eugenics.23


Concerns about racial mixture and social degeneration often compelled Latin American physicians to turn their attention to reproduction, childhood, and motherhood—that nexus where future generations are born and nurtured. Eugenicists hoped to intervene in this intimate domain by encouraging scientific standards and norms of care, and promoting practices that diminished the likelihood that debilitating conditions and behaviors would be perpetuated across generations. Known as puericulture, this approach was one of the hallmarks of Latin eugenics and was embraced by Latin American eugenicists across the scientific and ideological gambit.

The French physician Alfred Caron coined the term puericulture in the 1850s, and several decades later doctor Adolphe Pinard popularized and infused it with a hereditarian slant.24 Soon it traveled across the Atlantic via scientific networks, gaining a deep foothold in Latin America. Indeed, eugenics (eugenesia in Spanish and eugenia in Portuguese) and puericulture (puericultura) regularly appeared as twinned terms and acted in mutually reinforcing ways. For example, the Mexican Puericulture Society (1929) served as the springboard, in terms of ideas and personnel, for the formation of the Mexican Eugenics Society (1931). In Cuba, Ramos and his colleague Eusebio Hernández Pérez used puericulture as the template for homiculture, which they debuted in a 1911 publication. A uniquely Latin American manifestation of eugenics, homiculture is defined as a science that linked “human fitness to a nation’s capacity for peace, order, and prosperity.”25 Two years later Ramos and Pérez established the Homiculture League—Cuba’s primary eugenics organization.

Puericulture melded nationalism with a focus on childhood and reproduction that often fixated on the bodies of women. To a great extent, this worked to reinforce medicalized and patriarchal norms about feminized bodies and roles: women were expected to be breeders for and mothers of the nation. However, feminists also could commandeer the tenets of puericulture to assert their moral and embodied authority as mothers and reproducers. This dynamic was on stage at the Feminist Congresses in Yucatán, Mexico, in 1916 and 1917, when eugenic themes of human improvement merged with feminist calls for greater reproductive freedom.26 Puericulture could support softer and harder eugenic policies and practices. It animated the healthy children (niños sanos) contests that were held in cities and towns throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in the early 20th century and provided a rationale for milk stations and pediatric nutrition.27 The scientific norms of puericulture also were evident in the concerted roll-out of mental testing in schools throughout Latin America as educators sought to measure cognitive aptitude among the youngest generations. In Latin America and across the globe, these psychometric instruments usually reinforced racial and class inequalities, generating results that classified poorer and darker-skinned children as inherently less intelligent than their wealthier and fairer counterparts.28 Efforts to quantify children mentally and physically were in vogue in Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s, and coalesced regionally into a series of Pan American Child Congresses (launched in 1916), the related establishment of the International Institute for the Protection of Childhood in Montevideo (1927), and the passage of Uruguay’s emblematic Children’s Sanitary Code (1933). 29

Throughout Latin America, the emphasis on puericulture was directly tied to pronatalism and panic over the need to populate both urban areas and vast expanses of land with the right kind of human stock. In Argentina, Arturo Rossi was one of many eugenicists who was deeply concerned about dropping fertility rates, which were most pronounced in Buenos Aires. According to Rossi, urbanization was taking a dysgenic toll on middle-class and working-class Argentine women, who were not procreating at acceptable rates. Thus, the burden of eugenic pronatalism was placed on women, who were pressured to reproduce and expected to birth vigorous children.30 On the flip side, noncompliant women could fall under intense scrutiny. Once identified as threats to the nation, such women required regulation, containment, and rehabilitation. Whether taking a prescriptive or proscriptive approach, puericulture strove to make women responsible citizens, and children healthy and normal subjects for the nation. These eugenic objectives stimulated the formation of Venezuela’s National Puericulture Service (1936) and the creation of visiting-nurses programs that incorporated puericulture into curriculum and demonstrations. Visiting nurses traversed the cities, hamlets, and remote countryside of Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela spreading the eugenic gospel of puericulture and scientific motherhoood.31

Preventive Eugenics

Rather than viewing eugenics as either positive or negative, Nancy Leys Stepan proposed preventive eugenics as a framework to contextualize policies and practices implemented in Latin America. In her words, preventive eugenics strove to advance “the nation by cleansing from the milieu those factors considered to be damaging to people’s hereditary health.”32 Preventive eugenics resonated with Lamarckian approaches and did not draw stark boundaries between nature and nurture in terms of public health interventions. Following Lamarckian theories, Latin American eugenicists understood many diseases whose etiologies were microbial, such as tuberculosis or syphilis, and complex behavioral conditions, such as alcoholism, as hereditary. Across Latin America, eugenicists and public health workers referred to these hereditary threats as “racial poisons” and dedicated a great deal of time to crafting crusades to extirpate them (a 1942 Mexican campaign against “racial the poison” of tuberculosis in shown in Figure 2). The vice-president of the São Paulo Eugenics Society aptly encapsulated this vision when he proclaimed boldly that “to sanitize is to eugenize,” underscoring that hygiene and public health were the motors of hereditary betterment.33 This approach extended to mental hygiene as well. For example, in Bolivia, eugenically minded physicians were particularly concerned about the hereditability of psychiatric conditions and designed strategies to control them.34

Figure 2. Depicted is an anti-tuberculosis campaign that represented one prong of Mexico’s neo-Lamarckian eugenics movement.

Source: Jose Alvarez Amezquita, Miguel E. Bustamente, Antonio Lopez Picazos, and Francisco Fernandez del Castillo, Historia de la Salubridad y de la Asistencia en Mexico, Tomo II (Mexico, D.F.: Secretaria de Salubridad y Asistencia, 1960).

Preventive eugenics targeted both single and married women and men, especially those suspected of carrying “racial poisons” that might endanger the biological integrity of the nation. The National League of Hygiene and Social Prophylaxis (1923) was formed in Peru when a group of university physicians and female activists joined forces with the Red Cross to systematically confront the “deadly trinity” of alcoholism, syphilis, and tuberculosis.35 In Cuba, in the 1940s, prominent physician José Chelala Aguilera took to the radio and popular press to instruct newlyweds on strategies to achieve marital compatibility and sexual and reproductive fitness, with the end goal of producing vigorous offspring.36

Across Latin America, women viewed as sexual transgressors were targeted by national and local legislation that sought to regulate prostitution and medically monitor and treat venereal diseases. However, men were not left out of this equation. Notably, in the 1920s and 1930s, eugenicists focused on men as vectors of degenerating diseases that demanded detection and surveillance. Errant men poised to spread “racial poisons” into the next generations captured the campaigns of Peru’s National League of Hygiene and Social Prophylaxis. Similarly, in Argentina, the passage of the 1936 anti-venereal law expanded on existing regulations of women’s bodies to target working-class men, whose inebriated debauchery and loose sexuality ostensibly were undermining national well-being.37

Prenuptial certificates were another important manifestation of preventive eugenics in Latin America. These documents required that intended couples submit to medical examinations to determine if either one was suffering from sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis or gonorrhea or from ailments such as tuberculosis. By the early 1930s, four Latin American countries (Brazil, Mexico [Coahuila state], Panama, and Peru) had approved mandatory prenuptial exams, and seven had laws on the books that invalidated marriages if one of the spouses was diagnosed with a transmissible disease (Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, and Peru).38 During the 1920s and 1930s, Argentine eugenicists devoted a great deal of energy to instituting prenuptial medical certificates, which they folded into the passage of the 1936 anti-venereal prophylaxis law, and managed through the National Institute for the Prophylaxis of Venereal Diseases.39

Preoccupations with venereal diseases (VD) were the stepping stones to the passage of Latin America’s only home-grown sterilization law—in the Mexican state of Veracruz, enacted in 1932 by governor Adalberto Tejeda, an outspoken anticlerical Socialist. This law represented the culmination of a string of legislation that sought to criminalize “public women” and tamp down on VD, especially in the cities of Xalapa and Veracuz. Sterilization was seen as a natural extension of sexual and reproductive control that would cleanse the populace of deadly diseases and their noxious affects. Tejeda established a Section of Eugenics and Hygiene to administer the sterilization law, although existing historical records indicate that few if any operations occurred under its purview.40

The one region were sterilization was instituted as large scale policy was Puerto Rico, claimed as a U.S. colony in the 1898 Spanish-American War, and by the early 20th century, a site that produced worries about over-population among U.S. imperialists. In the first few decades of the century, an uneasy alliance existed among eugenicists with strong U.S. ties and Puerto Rican feminists who sought to increase access to birth control.41 If in the 1930s most Latin American eugenicists rejected sterilization, the strong hand of the United States in Puerto Rico pushed the island in the opposite direction. In 1937, birth control was legalized and a sterilization law was passed that permitted involuntary procedures. By the 1970s, approximately one-third of women had undergone tubal ligations. Puerto Rico’s strikingly high sterilization rate reflected the successful implementation of a neo-eugenic program of population control on the island and among Puerto Rican communities in New York City. Nevertheless, this story of top-down reproductive dominance is complicated by survey research that suggests that many Puerto Rican women reported satisfaction with their tubal ligations.42 Rather than negate the eugenic aspects of Puerto Rico’s extensive sterilization regime, these findings reveal the complex relationship between choice and coercion when women with limited resources have access to permanent birth control.


In order to improve society, eugenicists needed to determine who was fit and unfit, healthy and unhealthy, prepared to progress and doomed toward evolutionary regression. To compile this scorecard, eugenicists around the globe were at the forefront of developing new modalities of classifying and labeling. In Latin America, this enterprise was inextricably linked to biotypology, which rejected discrete racial categories—strongly associated with doctrines of white superiority—and instead sought to classify human types based on a multiplicity of human capacities. This approach allowed Latin American eugenicists to pursue the dream of the biological betterment of mixed-race populations through the application of ostensibly more neutral scientific methods. Although a handful of well-placed researchers in the United States conducted biotypological studies, usually under the umbrella of constitutional medicine, biotypology had broad and magnetic appeal in countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. If French influence was evident in the popularity of puericulture, then biotypology demonstrated the far-reaching impact of Italian science and medicine in Latin America during the mid-century.

Starting in the 1930s, Latin American eugenicists embarked on major projects to measure and classify urbanites, rural dwellers, and indigenous groups, among others, incorporating the biotypological schemes developed by their Italian colleagues.43 In their hunt for universal types, biotypologists employed myriad devices, such as spirometers, stethoscopes, Rorschach inkblots, blood -sampling kits, ergographs, dream analysis, and personality and temperament tests. They often began their investigations by gauging physiological and anthropometric indicators such as chest-limb ratio, thyroid metabolism, head shape, pulse, and ergonomic response. Through the utilization of laboratory and medical instruments and statistical methods, and an allegiance to more expansive theories of human biology, biotypologists mapped human differentiation on distributional continuums. Many biotypological categories circulated in the mid-century; however, some of most common were ectomorph/endomorph/mesomorph, introvert/extrovert, and hyperkinetic/hypokinetic, terms still popular today.

Argentine eugenicists were perhaps the most taken with biotypology, which was showcased in the name of that country’s premier eugenics organization and its scholarly journal. Indeed, it was at the Italian Hospital in Buenos Aires in the 1930s that a cadre of physicians connected to the Italian Argentine Institute solidified not only the activities of the Argentina Association for Biotypology, Eugenics and Social Medicine but also a polytechnic school and allied academic facilities. Argentine eugenicists incorporated the typologies of Nicola Pende and Corrado Gini, with their visible fascist overtones, into their mission to identify ideal biotypes.44

Biotypology never acquired such institutional standing in Brazil, but nonetheless was employed enthusiastically by an array of social scientists and physicians who relied on the frameworks of Pende, as well as Giacinto Viola and Mario Barbàra (see Figure 3). Biotypology was central to the anthropological search to identify the quintessential Brazilian “normotype” or normal man, the subject of dozens of specialized books and manuals, and secured a solid foothold in Rio de Janeiro’s School of Medicine. Biotypology also influenced Brazilian clinical medicine, particularly cardiology, as physicians sought to correlate specific biotypes with particular diseases.45 An analogous pattern was at play in Argentina, where biotypology left a profound mark on the field on endocrinology. Physicians interested in hormonal etiologies explored the conditions that ostensibly made some women superior breeders for the nation. Looking closely at clinic records, one historian has found that during the 1930s, biotypology and endocrinology converged in some clinical settings to offer a scientific rationale for extralegal sterilizations of women who were labeled dysgenic and unlikely to produce robust children.46

Figure 3. “The Biotypes of Giacinto Viola.”

Source: Waldemar Berardinelli, Tratado de biotipologia e patalogia consitucional (Francisco Alves: Rio de Janeiro, 1942).

Mexican biotypologists followed along a similar vein, enamored of Viola’s biotypes, whose tripartite model consisted of short types, long types, and normal types.47 In addition, Gini, an Italian statistician who wanted to apply demographic tools to encourage pronatalism, fomented biotypological efforts in Mexico. In the 1930s, Gini spent a good deal of time in Mexico training scientists, who then fanned out to realize studies in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Jalisco, and Michoacán.48 Although biotypologists proclaimed that their tools were free of racism, when these techniques were employed to differentiate between indigenous groups, some groups were inevitably deemed more assimilable and civilizable than others, most notably the Otomís, who were categorized as deficient short types. These findings, in turn, were incorporated into plans for demographic growth and change, demonstrating that biotypology produced its own set of hierarchies inflected by race and class.49


Although the explicitly racist statements of past eugenicists would not be acceptable today, there are many aspects of eugenics that have left visible marks on Latin America’s political, social, and health landscapes. Most notably, there remains a strong tradition of puericulture in most Latin American countries. Indeed, the term still is regularly used to describe pre- and post-conceptive childcare in popular and medical language. In addition, the quest to identify a biologically coherent mestizo, which captivated Mexican intellectuals such as Enríquez and Vasconcelos in the early 20th century, has been at the forefront of the development of genomics of Mexico, most notably with the founding of Mexico’s National Institute of Genomic Medicine, which launched the Mexican Genome Diversity Project to identify the mestizo genome in the 2000s.50 While the upshot of this search need not be eugenic, the roots of this typology can be traced back to the heady days when race, nation, and mestizaje captivated scientists and intellectuals. Biometric systems, with strong affinities to biotypology, also have proven resilient. Argentina began its long love affair with biometrics in the early 1900s, and it continued unabated during the extended eugenics era (1910s–1950s) and the military dictatorship (1976–1983) with its obsession with identification cards (fichas) to track dissidents. More recently, during her presidency, Cristina Kirchner spearheaded a major initiative to apply biometric fingerprinting to all citizens, creating a database that could be cross-referenced with other institutional and medical records, thus assembling the kind of biotypological registry that would have been lauded by the eugenicists of yesteryear.51

Nevertheless, Argentina also has been home to one of the most poignant uses of genetics in the pursuit of social justice. During the dictatorship, the military seized the young children of “subversives” and placed them surreptitiously in upright, conservative families (in their words, familias bien constituidas). This reconditioning strategy was transferred directly from the playbook of Francoist Spain, where, ironically, Lamarckian eugenics was invoked to justify the appropriation of the children of Republicans and their resettlement in “proper” Christian homes. By the early 1980s, these children could reclaim their biological families by using newly developed genetic tests (first mitochondrial DNA and later autosomal DNA tests) that confirmed the degree of genetic relatedness among separated grandparents, grandchildren, and more distant relatives.52 To date, this technique, which stands at the crux of the human rights work of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, has helped reunite 120 grandchildren (of an estimated 500) with their grandparents and extended kin. Similar uses of DNA testing are underway in Brazil to reunite and offer reparations to families in the case of children who were taken from parents interned in leper colonies in the mid-20th century based a logic of eugenic quarantine.53 In Peru, female indigenous leaders await similar justice in the form of official recognition and perhaps reparations for the tens of thousands of tubal ligations performed in the 1990s under president Alberto Fujimori as part of a population-control program that targeted Indian women and was financially supported both by domestic funds and international agencies.54

Discussion of the Literature

The foundational monograph is Nancy Leys Stepan The Hour of Eugenics (1991), published more than twenty years ago, which showed in illuminating detail the histories of eugenics in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. Stepan persuasively described the emergence of “Latin eugenics” across the region, as well as in sister European countries such as Spain, France, and Italy. She also foregrounded preventive eugenics, which constituted an interventionist approach to controlling human heredity with deep roots in Lamarckism and possessed the capacity to succeed in officially Catholic countries. Preventive eugenics provided a framework for contextualizing matrimonial eugenics and prenuptial certificates in Latin America, as well as the commensurability of eugenics and public health campaigns against “racial poisons.”

Since the publication of The Hour of Eugenics, the field has expanded dramatically to include scholarship based on much more extensive archival research in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, including studies that explore different regions of those countries. Essential reading includes the two chapters on Latin America in Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford’s The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (2010), an edited volume that also includes many references to and examples of Latin American eugenics in the thematic chapters, and the anthologies edited by Marisa Miranda and Gustavo Vallejo, above all, Una historia de la Eugenesia: Argentina y las redes biopolíticas internacionales, 1912–1945 (2012). Other notable works include A History of Family Planning in Peru (2014), in which Raul Necochea López situates Peruvian eugenics in a layered fashion that highlights the unexpected role of Catholicism in the region, and the co-authored Latin Eugenics in Comparative Perspective (2014) by Marius Turda and Aaron Gillette, which provides a useful overview of general and specific contours of Latin eugenics, with sustained attention to its Latin American variants.

In addition, a wealth of book chapters and articles examine eugenics in Cuba, Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Chile, exploring themes of politics, motherhood, racism, demography, and immigration. These appear in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and sometimes Italian and French; accessing research on cutting-edge scholarship on eugenics necessitates a multilingual and multi-sited approach. Despite the plethora of newer work, in-depth studies are much more limited for Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic. Even without dedicated eugenics societies, these countries incorporated hereditarian ideas and practices into public health programs, and their historical experiences deserve further examination.

Primary Sources

There only are a few archival sources that contain a substantial amount of material related to eugenicists or eugenic organizations in Latin America. These include the papers of the founder of the São Paulo Eugenics Society, Renato Kehl, which are housed at the Casa Oswaldo Cruz in Rio de Janeiro, and the papers of the Eugenic Records Office and Charles Davenport, both at the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which contain materials related to Domingo Ramos and the Pan American Congresses on Eugenics and Homiculture.

Perhaps the materials most frequently consulted to reconstruct the histories of eugenics are the journals published by eugenics societies and allied scientific, health, and civic organizations, of which some copies exist in libraries in Latin America, the United States, and Europe. Historians of eugenics rely intensely on these published periodicals, as well as books written by key historical actors. Increasingly, through WorldCat and other online catalogues, journals as such Eugenesia (Mexico), Eugenia (Brazil), and Anales de Biotipologia, Eugenesia y Medicina Social (Argentina) can be accessed via interlibrary loan or in digital form.

Secondary and complementary research on the role of eugenics in medicine, law, social sciences, and education can be explored in national, state, and local archives throughout Latin America. Scholars utilize a combination of these sources in conjunction with a solid foundation of published primary sources to reconstruct the history of eugenics on smaller and larger geographical and thematic scales. For example, legislative and judicial records can be consulted to track eugenics legislation and implementation; public health records can illuminate the role of puericulture campaigns, anti-venereal-disease efforts, and visiting-nurses programs; educational records can reveal the development of mental testing and the growth of eugenic norms of intelligence; and the records of relevant academic units, such as demographic institutes and anthropology departments, often contain data pertinent to uncovering the adaption of biotypology among Latin American scientists and social scientists.

Further Reading

  • Dávila, Jerry. Diploma of Whiteness: Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917–1945. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
  • Eraso, Yolando. “Biotypology, Endocrinology, and Sterilization: The Practice of Eugenics in the Treatment of Argentinian Women during the 1930s,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 81.4 (2007): 793–822.
  • FitzGerald, David Scott and David Cook-Martin. Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Gomes, Ana Carolina Vimieiro. “The Emergence of Biotypology in Brazilian Medicine: The Italian Model, Textbooks, and Discipline Building, 1930–1940.” In History of European Universities, 19th and 20th centuries. Challenges and Transformations. Edited by Ana Simões, Maria Paula Diogo, and Kostas Gavroglu, 361–380. New York: Springer, 2015.
  • Hochman, Gilberto, Nisía Trinidade Lima, and Marcos Chor Maoi. “The Path of Eugenics in Brazil: Dilemmas of Miscegenation.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Edited by Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, 493–510. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Miranda, Marisa and Gustavo Vallejo, eds. Una historia de la Eugenesia: Argentina y las redes biopolíticas internacionales, 1912–1945. Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2012.
  • Necochea López, Raul. A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Schell, Patience A. “Eugenics Policy and Practice in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Edited by Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, 477–492. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Stepan, Nancy Leys. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.
  • Stern, Alexandra Minna. “‘The Hour of Eugenics’ in Veracruz, Mexico: Radical Politics, Public Health, and Latin America’s Only Sterilization Law.” Hispanic American Historical Review 91.3 (2011): 431–443.
  • Turda, Marius and Aaron Gillette. Latin Eugenics in Comparative Perspective. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.


  • 1. Francis Galton, Essays in Eugenics (London: Eugenics Education Society, 1909), 35.

  • 2. Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford, “Introduction: Eugenics and the Modern World,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, eds. Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3–26.

  • 3. Stuart McCook, States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760–1940 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

  • 4. Alan Knight, “Racism, Revolution, and Indigenismo: Mexico, 1910–1940,” in The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940, ed. Richard Graham (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 71–113.

  • 5. Alexandra Minna Stern, “From Mestizophilia to Biotypology: Racialization and Science in Mexico, 1920-1960,” in Race and Nation in Modern Latin America, eds. Nancy Appelbaum, Anne S. Macpherson, and Karin A. Rosemblatt (Raleigh: University of North Carolina, 2003), 187–209.

  • 6. Gilberto Hochman, Nísia Trinidade Lima, and Marcos Chor Maoi, “The Path of Eugenics in Brazil: Dilemmas of Miscegenation,” in The Oxford Handbook, eds. Levine and Bashford, 477–492.

  • 7. David Scott FitzGerald and David Cook-Martin, Culling the Masses: The Democratic Origins of Racist Immigration Policy in the Americas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

  • 8. Sarah Walsh, “‘One of the Most Uniform Races of the Entire World’: Creole Eugenics and the Myth of Chilean Racial Homogeneity,” Journal of the History of Biology 48 (2015): 613–639.

  • 9. Pedro Zarini, “La Utopía Eugenista en la Argentina (1900–1950),” in El mosaico argentino: Modelos y representaciones del espacio y de la población, siglos XIX–XX, dir. Hernán Otero (Buenos Aires: Siglo Veintiuno, 2004), 425–466.

  • 10. FitzGerald and Cook-Martin, Culling the Masses.

  • 11. FitzGerald and Cook-Martin, Culling the Masses, 220: Beatriz Urías Horcasitas, Historias Secretas del Racismo en México (1920–1950) (Mexico City: Tiempo De Memoria TusQuets, 2007).

  • 12. Marius Turda and Aaron Gillette, Latin Eugenics in Comparative Perspective (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

  • 13. Nancy Leys Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

  • 14. Stefan Pohl-Valero, “‘La raza entra por la boca’: Energy, Diet and Eugenics in Colombia, 1890–1940,” Hispanic American Historical Review 94.3 (2014): 455–486.

  • 15. Quoted in Hochman, Lima, and Maoi, “The Path of Eugenics in Brazil,” 501.

  • 16. Patience A. Schell, “Eugenics Policy and Practice in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Mexico,” in The Oxford Handbook, eds. Levine and Bashford, 477–492; Armando García González and Raquel Álvarez Peláez, En Busca de la Raza Perfecta: Eugenesia e Higiene en Cuba (1898–1958) (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1999).

  • 17. Marisa A. Miranda, “La Argentina en el scenario eugénico internacional,” in Una historia de la Eugenesia: Argentina y las redes biopolíticas internacionales, 1912–1945, eds. Marisa Miranda and Gustavo Vallejo (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2012), 19–64.

  • 18. Schell, “Eugenics Policy”; Raul Necochea López, A History of Family Planning in Twentieth-Century Peru (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), chap. 2.

  • 19. Turda and Gillette, Latin Eugenics.

  • 20. Necochea López, A History of Family Planning, chap. 1.

  • 21. Walter Mendoza and Oscar Martínez, “Las Ideas Eugenésicas en la Creación del Instituto de Medicina Social,” Anales de la Facultad de Medicina 60.1 (1999): 55–60.

  • 22. Miranda, “La Argentina.”

  • 23. Juan Pablo Murillo Peña and Gustavo Franco Paredes, “Nuestra tragedia biológica: La eugenesia peruana y su participación en el escenario internacional,” in Una historia, eds. Miranda and Vallejo, 287–329.

  • 24. William H. Schneider, Quality and Quantity: The Quest for Biological Regeneration in Twentieth-Century France (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

  • 25. Quoted in Schell, “Eugenics Policy,” 478.

  • 26. Alexandra Minna Stern, “Responsible Mothers and Normal Children: Eugenics, Welfare, and Nationalism in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, 1900–1940,” Journal of Historical Sociology 12.4 (1999): 369–397.

  • 27. Elisa M. González, “Nurturing the Citizens of the Future: Milk Stations and Child Nutrition in Puerto Rico, 1929–1960,” Medical History 59.2 (2015): 177–198.

  • 28. Jerry Dávila, Diplomas of Whiteness: Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917–1945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

  • 29. Anne-Emanuelle Birn, “‘No More Surprising than a Broken Pitcher?’ Maternal and Child Health in the Early Years of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau,” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 19.1 (2002): 17–46.

  • 30. Pedro Zarini, “La Utopía Eugenista en la Argentina (1900–1950),” in El mosaico argentine, dir. Hernán Otero, 425–466.

  • 31. Necochea Lopez, A History of Family Planning; Birn, “No More Surprising”;Steven Palmer and Gladys Rojas Chaves, “Educating Señorita: Teacher Training, Social Mobility, and the Birth of Costa Rican Feminism, 1885–1925,” Hispanic American Historical Review 78.1 (1998): 45–82.

  • 32. Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics, 17.

  • 33. Quoted in Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics, 90.

  • 34. Ann Zulawski, Unequal Cures: Public Health and Political Change in Bolivia, 1900–1950 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

  • 35. Necochea López, A History of Family Planning.

  • 36. Sarah R. Arvey, “Sex and the Ordinary Physician: Cuban Physicians, Eugenics, and Marital Sexuality, 1933-1958,” Journal of History of Sexuality 21.1 (2012): 93–120.

  • 37. Natalia Milanesio, “Redefining Men’s Sexuality, Resignifying Male Bodies: The Argentine Law of Anti-Venereal Prophylaxis, 1936,” Gender & History 17.2 (2005): 463–491.

  • 38. Andrés H. Reggiani, “Depopulation, Fascism, and Eugenics in 1930s Argentina,” Hispanic American Historical Review 90.2 (2010): 283–318.

  • 39. Milanesio, “Redefining Men’s Sexuality.”

  • 40. Alexandra Minna Stern, “‘The Hour of Eugenics’ in Veracruz, Mexico: Radical Politics, Public Health, and Latin America’s Only Sterilization Law,” Hispanic American Historical Review 91.3 (2011): 431–443.

  • 41. Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

  • 42. Iris Lopez, Matters of Choice: Puerto Rican Women’s Struggle for Reproductive Freedom (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

  • 43. Sergio Silva-Casteñeda, “Transatlantic Demographers: The Italian Influence over Population Policy in Mexico and Spain, 1930–1973,” Journal of Policy History 27.2 (2015): 220–249.

  • 44. Eugenia Scarzanella, “Los Intelectuales Italo-Argentinos: ?Un Posible Liderazgo Étnico? La Asociación Argentina de Biotipología, Eugenesia y Medicina Social (1930–1943)” in De Europa a las Américas: Dirigentes y liderazgos (1880–1960), eds. Alicia Bernasconi y Carina Frid (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2006), 99–112.

  • 45. Ana Carolina Vimieiro Gomes, “The Emergence of Biotypology in Brazilian Medicine: The Italian Model, Textbooks, and Discipline Building, 1930–1940,” in History of European Universities, 19th and 20th centuries. Challenges and Transformations, eds. Ana Simões, Maria Paula Diogo, and Kostas Gavroglu (New York: Springer, 2015), 361–380.

  • 46. Yolando Eraso, “Biotypology, Endocrinology, and Sterilization: The Practice of Eugenics in the Treatment of Argentinian Women during the 1930s,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 81.4 (2007): 793–822.

  • 47. Stern, “From Mestizophilia to Biotypology.”

  • 48. Silva-Casteñeda, “Transatlantic Demographers.”

  • 49. Deborah Dorotinsky, “Para medir el cuerpo de la nación: antropología física y visualidad racialista en el marco de la recepción de la biotipología en México,” in Una historia, eds. Miranda and Vallejo, 331–365.

  • 50. Carlos López Beltrán, Vivette García Deister, and Mariana Rios Sandoval, “Negotiating the Mexican Mestizo: On the Possibility of a National Genomics,” in Mestizo Genomics: Race Mixing, Nation, and Science in Latin America, eds. Peter Wade, Carlos López Beltrán, Eduardo Restrepo, and Ricardo Ventura Santos (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 85–108.

  • 51. Dante Avaro, “Citizen Traceability: Surveillance à la Argentina,” Journal of Power, Politics, and Governance 2.3 and 4 (2014): 93–113.

  • 52. Gustavo Vallejo and Marisa Miranda, “Eugenesia, genética y derechos humanos en la Argentina del siglo XX,” in Genética y Derechos Humanos: Encunetros y Desencuentros, comp. Víctor Penchaszadeh (Buenos Aires: Biblioteca Nacional, 2012), 107–138.

  • 53. Claudia Fonseca, “Time, DNA and Documents in Family Reckonings,” Vibrant: Virtual Brazilian Anthropology 12.1 (2015).

  • 54. Necochea López, A History of Family Planning.