Homeopathic Balms for Unruly gauchos: Alternative Medicine and Rural Imaginaries in Uruguay at the Turn of the 20th Century 

Analía Lavin // What did the nostalgic portrayal of gauchos — nomadic rural workers who wandered through Southern Latin America’s countryside— have to do with alternative medicine? An unusual 1895 Uruguayan publication brought together these different worlds, combining a home remedy manual, a homeopathic catalogue and a collection of short stories featuring gauchos. In this essay, I argue that the sometimes contradictory discourses mobilized by the book projected an ideal of freedom compatible with the emergent category of citizens in control of their own health. 

José Fontela, the author and publisher, was a Spanish-Uruguayan homeopathic pharmacist and an amateur writer of gauchoesque fiction. He combined his two passions in this project, where he juxtaposed prescriptions and products that sought to alleviate physical and metal ailments and pain to sensational short stories of passionate and often violent gauchos. Indeed, the most striking feature of the volume was that he graphically inserted the literary section into the catalogue and the handbook, placing side by side radically different genres of texts. Indeed, he divided each page into two columns: in one the reader could find treatments for different ailments as well as a list of homeopathic products on sale. In the other, he included a collection of his short stories with engravings illustrating compelling scenes. 

For each page, Fontela’s short stories can be found at the inner columns of the publication (here, in green), and the home remedy book and homeopathic catalogue in the outer ones (in red). Image source: Fontela, José A. Catálogo general de la botica central Homeopática de José A. Fontela: Farmacéutico. 3. ed., Dornaleche y Reyes, 1895.

Fontela’s combination of different genres through an unconventional layout challenged the linear and hierarchical model of the scientific method embraced by doctors at the time. Indeed, at the margins of the medical discourse, alternative medicine practitioners developed creative strategies that circumvented the public health model developed between state officials in collaboration with medical doctors. Experimental science had come late to the country (Barrán 1992), and after a considerable lag, the professionalisation of medicine was going through a period of acceleration. At the same time, there was a fledgling scene of alternative therapies that disputed academic medicine’s epistemological model, including homeopathy, naturism, hydropathy, and many others. Mostly through the ambiguous concepts of nature and harmony, they advocated for a holistic view of the patient where ethics and aesthetics played as important a role as the patient’s physical well-being. Practitioners denounced, and many times rightly so, the authoritarianism and cruelty of academic medicine and called for a return to its Hippocratic roots. 

Alternative health practitioners were prolific philosophers and writers but also business people who needed to sell their products to make a living. Fontela’s catalogue shows how their multiple identities coexisted, sometimes including that of a literary writer. The commercial aspect, however, is conspicuously prevailing.  The very first page lists the pharmacy’s sales terms and conditions: cash and gold only (including bank bills from the United States and Europe), mail orders accepted upon advanced payment, and many more. At the same time, the imposition of the short stories and illustrations in every single page of the following one hundred and thirty and the impossibility of browsing through it without catching a glimpse of the captioned illustration of a horse or a gaucho, compromise its commercial value. When looking for a condition to treat or a product to buy, the literary section becomes an obstacle for the reader to overcome, a nuisance that interferes with the catalogue’s intended sales potential. 

Fontela’s literary ambitions also complicate his own expertise as an alternative medicine practitioner. Part of the success of homeopathy and other unorthodox therapies had to do with their alignment with many of the hygienist principles that public health authorities embraced at the time. They disagreed with academic medicine’s approach both to diagnosis, where patients were reduced to their pathologies, and treatment, especially with regards to aggressive therapies. But their prevention strategies were similar: exercise, sunbaths and fresh air were encouraged; alcohol, tobacco, coffee and other stimulants were advised against. In the context of “nervous illnesses,” many doctors strongly discouraged overstimulation from art and, specifically, from fiction. Homeopaths and other alternative practitioners agreed. In the home remedy section of the catalogue, for example, when instructing the reader on how to treat a specific nervous condition, Fontela states: “Avoid any kind of reading that exerts harmful effects on the patient’s mind, as well as other known causes of such a state, without which the cure and even the alleviation of the disease is impossible” (1895: 45).

Meanwhile, in the right-hand column of that same page, one of Fontela’s short stories narrates a fight between a drunk gaucho and a priest, preceded by many others where gambling, bloody fights and inebriated gauchos were the norm rather than the exception. That is, the kind of agitating reading that the catalogue was advising against. 

Literature thus becomes a transgression that can be tolerated, in part because the short stories portray a nostalgic, archetypical version of gauchos, de-historicized and deprived of any indicator of their potentially disturbing actual living conditions. Gauchos, as represented in Fontela’s idealizing writing, appear as in communion with nature, relying on their horses and their physical force to survive, even if it implied violence and barbarism. In a context of massive European immigration, where a differentiating national identity was actively in the making, gauchoesque literature operated as a source of cultural authenticity (Casas 2018). Meanwhile, on the other half of the same page, the alternative medicine movement that the catalogue also represented advocated for a return to a romanticized natural state to counteract the debilitating effects of civilisation on the moral and physical well-being of the population. Although this narrative erased any trace of violence from its ideal of nature, there was a similar appeal to an essential, atemporal origin, this time framed as an indicator of the nation’s cosmopolitanism. Despite their mostly superficial brushes with indigenous healing, homeopathy was in fact as much of a modern European and North American import as the institutional medicine was. 

Engravings illustrating scenes featuring gauchos and horses from
the short stories. Image source: Fontela, José A. Catálogo general de la botica central Homeopática de José A. Fontela: Farmacéutico. 3. ed., Dornaleche y Reyes, 1895.

The home remedy manual part of the catalogue projects a modern self-help ethos where the individual takes control of and responsibility for his or her own health,( Kinder 2004).  As was the case for the propaganda campaigns led by public health authorities, alternative medicine also provided individuals with tools for their own health education. While the public health model imposed the figure of the doctor as an absolute authority that could not be circumvented, homeopathic and home naturalist handbooks offered recipes and advice for self-treatment in an accessible format and language. As the catalogue shows, a person could just look for the condition that was ailing him or her at the index (be it asthma, a cold, or “women problems”) and order the appropriate treatment from the pharmacy.

Alternative medicine thus promoted a sense of autonomy and self-determination that aligned itself with the democratic values of a new republic (when the catalogue was published Uruguay had not yet reached the centenary of its independence). These values, it could be argued, were at odds with the hierarchies of the medical profession, often denounced as authoritarian by alternative practitioners. In this sense, the catalogue establishes a continuity between the unruly nature and free spirit of the untamed gauchos depicted in the short stories, ready to fight for their freedom, and the empowered patient-citizens, enthused about educating themselves and taking control over their own treatment.

Works Cited

Barrán, José Pedro. Medicina y sociedad en el Uruguay del Novecientos. Ediciones de la Banda Oriental, 1992.

Casas, Matías Emiliano. “El Fogón, periódico criollo: tiempos fundacionales, sociabilidad y reformulaciones sobre el criollismo finisecular rioplatense, (1895-1896).” Claves. Revista de Historia, vol. 4, no. 6, 6, 2018, pp. 153–90. 

Fontela, José A. Catálogo general de la botica central Homeopática de José A. Fontela: Farmacéutico. 3. ed., Dornaleche y Reyes, 1895.

Kinder, Susan Alison. The Struggle for Legitimacy in Victorian Alternative Medicine : The Case of Hydropathy and Mesmerism. Birkbeck (University of London), 2004. 

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