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Public health policy paradoxes: science and politics in the Rockefeller Foundation's hookworm campaign in Mexico in the 1920s


  • Birn, Anne-Emanuelle
  • Solórzano, Armando


The origins of US international health endeavors are intertwined with the Progressive Era's faith in science as arbiter of humankind's secular problems. No agency better exemplifies the period's confidence in science than the Rockefeller Foundation's International Health Board (IHB), which set out to export the new public health theory and practice around the world. An examination of the IHB's hookworm program in Mexico in the 1920s demonstrates that, notwithstanding the Rockefeller Foundation's (RF) self-conscious commitment to scientific neutrality, its programs continuously engaged political criteria, exhibiting the competition, coexistence, and inseparability of the worlds of science, politics, and international health policy. Analysis of the program's quotidian decisions and larger strategies further reveals the protean quality of RF science-politics, which enabled responses to parochial and broadly-conceived needs at multiple levels. In the focus on hookworm, the selection of campaign sites, hookworm diagnosis methods, treatment procedures, definition of cure, and the assignment of responsibility for prevention, scientific and political considerations were inextricably bound. The science-politics paradox was molded by the hookworm program's constituencies in Mexico, including political leaders, health bureaucrats, physicians, business interests, public health workers, peasants, and Rockefeller officers. The multiple, often contradictory, roles of the RF's hookworm campaign are characteristic of the policy paradoxes that emerge when science is summoned to drive policy. In Mexico the campaign served as a policy cauldron through which new knowledge could be demonstrated applicable to social and political problems on many levels. The repeated pledge of scientific neutrality belied the hookworm program's inherent aim of persuading government officials, the medical community, business interests, and the populace of the value of investing in public health as a means to improve social conditions, further a medical model of health and sickness, increase economic productivity, and promote good relations between the US and Mexico.

Suggested Citation

  • Birn, Anne-Emanuelle & Solórzano, Armando, 1999. "Public health policy paradoxes: science and politics in the Rockefeller Foundation's hookworm campaign in Mexico in the 1920s," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 49(9), pages 1197-1213, November.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:49:y:1999:i:9:p:1197-1213

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