The Ailing City

Health, Tuberculosis, and Culture in Buenos Aires, 1870–1950

The Ailing City

Book Pages: 432 Illustrations: 50 illustrations Published: July 2011

Author: Diego Armus

History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Southern Cone, Medicine and Health > Public Health and Health Policy

For decades, tuberculosis in Buenos Aires was more than a dangerous bacillus. It was also an anxious state of mind shaped not only by fears of contagion and death but also by broader social and cultural concerns. These worries included changing work routines, rapid urban growth and its consequences for housing and living conditions, efforts to build a healthy “national race,” and shifting notions of normality and pathology. In The Ailing City, the historian Diego Armus explores the metaphors, state policies, and experiences associated with tuberculosis in Buenos Aires between 1870 and 1950. During those years, the disease was conspicuous and frightening, and biomedicine was unable to offer an effective cure. Against the background of the global history of tuberculosis, Armus focuses on the making and consolidation of medicalized urban life in the Argentine capital. He discusses the state’s intrusion into private lives and the ways that those suffering from the disease accommodated and resisted official attempts to care for them and to reform and control their morality, sociability, sexuality, and daily habits. The Ailing City is based on an impressive array of sources, including literature, journalism, labor press, medical journals, tango lyrics, films, advertising, imagery, statistics, official reports, and oral history. It offers a unique perspective on the emergence of modernity in a cosmopolitan city on the periphery of world capitalism.


“... The Ailing City serves as a exemplary work in the social and cultural history of disease, and it will justifiably become a prized resource on its topic.” — Mariola Espinosa, Medical History

The Ailing City is an interesting and important work...” — Susan M. Socolow, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“For its thought-provoking analysis of the discourses surrounding tuberculosis, based on deep immersion in historical archives, and for its reconstruction of the clandestine, perilous corners of dynamic urban life, The Ailing City deserves attention from historical geographers, especially those with an interest in the modernization of Latin American cities.” — Eric D. Carter, Journal of Historical Geography

The Ailing City is a testament to the achievements of the sociocultural approach to urban history and a good example of why the study of Buenos Aires continues to push the boundaries of Argentine historiography.” — Brian Bockelman, H-Urban, H-Net Reviews

“At a time when the spectre of tuberculosis has again raised its ugly head across the world, this well informed history of the disease and its treatment in the Argentine capital makes a significant contribution to public health debates…. This book is worth reading, revealing as it does that combating disease is never just the preserve of scientists and technocrats, but often a political task that involves taking a hard look at poverty and social deprivation.” — Gavin O'Toole, Latin American Review of Books

“Diego Armús has written an important book that tells us much about how the reaction to tuberculosis helped create the modern society of the city of Buenos Aires. The impact was not just on hospitals, sanatoria and those who suffered the disease – tuberculosis also had a significant and interesting impact on many sectors of the city’s culture. This is a book well worth reading.” — Joel Horowitz, Journal of Latin American Studies

“In recovering the history of tuberculosis as a disease that has also existed as metaphor and cultural trope, Armus has produced a study that should appeal to a wide reading public, not just to professional historians.”
— Yolanda Eraso, Social History of Medicine

“New approaches to the history of science and medicine in Latin America have broadened this discipline and grounded disease... [and] Diego Armus’s Ailing City is a thoughtful addition to this well-established yet dynamic field.... His scholarship contributes to the broader context of the debate in which public health becomes part of the political and cultural landscape. In addition, it contributes to the field of nation building and paints a more complete picture of Latin American history. It pushes the reader to develop a more nuanced understanding of the intersection of disease, nation, and society in the Argentine context and provides a solid point of comparison with other parts of the Americas and beyond. Ailing City is well written and meticulously researched and a welcome contribution to the history of Argentina, science, and medicine.” — Melissa E. Gormley, Journal of the History of Medicine

“This analysis of the discourses, practices, and images of tuberculosis in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Buenos Aires delivers a comprehensive overview of the many ways in which fears about the disease influenced daily life in the Argentine metropolis. ... Armus’s book is a rich and welcome study of how discussions about disease prevention and control reflected broader cultural and political anxieties during a period of significant social change in Argentina.” — Katherine Bliss, The Americas

“This book is a valuable addition to the history of Buenos Aires and to the history of medicine. Instructors in these fields as well as in urban studies will welcome its appearance in English.” — Julia Rodriguez, American Historical Review

“This is an important book based on an exhaustive examination of materials on TB as a disease and cultural artifact. It will be essential reading for those interested in Latin American History, the social history of disease, the history of TB and Argentine History.” — Ann Zulawski, Global Public Health

“This work is rich in personal anecdotes and depth of feld, showing the resonance of disease in music, theater, poetry, and sports. ... [I]t is most welcome for those interested in the social history of disease, and specialists in the history of Argentina.” — Donna J. Guy, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“Readers interested in the history of health care will find in The Ailing City a welcome opportunity to learn about a time and place normally beyond the historical canon in terms of geography and language. . . . The Ailing City is both an excellent introduction to the histories of tuberculosis and Buenos Aires and a resource for scholars more familiar with these subjects.” — Jonathan Hagood, Nursing History Review

“One of the main virtues of the book is the way in which the reader experiences the lives of several characters involved with tuberculosis, in a period where this social disease was one of the largest killers in Buenos Aires, with a great deal of social and cultural meanings and medical uncertainty attached.” 
— Hector Javier Sanchez-Perez, Bulletin of Latin American Research

The Ailing City’s innovative approach breaks new ground in the field of medical history as it reveals how disease filtered into non-disease related areas illuminating the medicalization of Argentine society. It will be required reading for social, cultural, urban and family historians.” — Carlos S. Dimas, The Latin Americanist

"Armus’s study excels not just as a history of tuberculosis but also as an urban history, a history of medicalization, and a history of hygiene. This last focus is a particular strength of the book, as Armus masterfully reconstructs the multiple and shifting understandings of hygiene present in Buenos Aires during this period." — Adam Warren, Hispanic American Historical Review

“An infectious disease linked to poverty, debauched sexuality, and ailing cities, tuberculosis was forged into myths that influenced doctors and patients, everyday urban life, popular culture, and scientific ideologies. The Ailing City is a powerful depiction of the illness and its victims and a poignant social and cultural history.” — Beatriz Sarlo, author of The Technical Imagination: Argentine Culture’s Modern Dreams

“In this splendidly rich study, Diego Armus shows how tuberculosis was intertwined with almost every facet of life in Buenos Aires, from the world of work to popular entertainment. With admirable attention to the lives of the sick and issues such as immigration and modernization, The Ailing City ranks among the finest cultural histories of disease.” — Mark Harrison, University of Oxford

“Today, when TB is once again a global threat, we need historical studies to document the fact that the disease has always been about much more than bacilli. Diego Armus’s rich account of the extraordinarily varied and complex ways that TB entered into individual lives and public consciousness in Buenos Aires between 1870 and 1950 is a wonderful example of what the new history of medicine in Latin America can achieve.” — Nancy Leys Stepan, author of “The Hour of Eugenics”: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Diego Armus is Associate Professor of Latin American History at Swarthmore College. He has written and edited several books in Spanish, and is the editor of Disease in the History of Modern Latin America: From Malaria to AIDS, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: A History of Tuberculosis in Modern Buenos Aires 1

1. People with Tuberculosis Looking for Cures 23

2. From Being Sick to Becoming a Patient 49

3. Unruly and Well-Adjusted Patients 84

4. The Fight against Tuberculosis and the Culture of Hygiene 115

5. The Obsession with Contagion 141

6. A Disease of Excesses 189

7. Immigration, Race, and Tuberculosis 221

8. A Female Disease 251

9. Forging the Healthy Body: Physical Education, Soccer, Childhood, and Tuberculosis 276

10. Tuberculosis and Regeneration: Imagined Cities, Green Spaces, and Hygienic Housing 307

Epilogue 345

Abbreviations 351

Notes 353

Selected Bibliography 397

Index 409
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5012-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4999-0
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