Holy Water: Alternative Medicine, Science and Spirituality in South America’s Most Secular Country

Analía Lavin //

When, in 1878, Luis Curbelo was in an Uruguayan jail for the crime of the illegal practice of medicine, prison authorities desperately requested his help to prevent officers from dying of typhus. Through hydrotherapy and herbal teas, the legend goes, Curbelo managed to cure them and stop the spread.1 He was subsequently set free and allowed to continue with his therapeutic practice, at least for a while. Alternative medicine was indeed criminalized at the turn of the twentieth century, when physicians were trying to bolster their then precarious professional status.2 In alliance with the state, they sought to regulate the multifarious therapeutic landscape of Uruguayan society, which then included medicine men and women, midwives, and a panoply of alternative healers like Curbelo.

Curbelo “hydro-magnetizing” a patient. Source: Revista Natura, August 1904, 129.

Years after the prison episode, Curbelo directed a popular hydrotherapy clinic located in a hilly region 65 miles away from the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo. In the fashion of European sanatoriums, it offered therapies against ailments difficult to treat by academic medicine, such as tuberculosis and several psychiatric conditions. It had first, second and third classrooms to accommodate the different social backgrounds of patients who came all the way from Montevideo or even further away in Argentina and included well-known politicians and artists. Curbelo personally supervised all treatments and was famous for his healing through magnetized water that had been in direct contact with his hands. According to some accounts, he used the magnetic powers of a secret stone that only he had access to.3 When he advertised his services in the press, however, he emphasized his education in Europe and his own research on what he portrayed as a modern branch of science so effective that it had miracle-like effects.4 He was careful to add, however, that it had nothing to do with magic or sorcery, and failed to mention that his training included visits to spiritist centers in Spain, where he was from. Alternative practitioners like Curbelo, with active connections to occultist movements, had to be careful and skilfully navigate applicable laws and regulations to avoid prosecution. But they also considered themselves part of the scientific paradigm of the time, relying on what they saw as the universal tools and language of science. Indeed, Curbelo constantly referred to his treatments as “rational” and “scientific” and shared most tenets of the hygienic culture enthusiastically embraced by medical doctors. 

Curbelo receiving a new patient. Source: Hilaire, Edgardo. Minas : sus progresos y sus bellezas. Montevideo, El Arte, 1907, 65.

While critics have studied the local elites’ enthusiasm around science’s potential to advance social, political and economic reforms in the country, they have overlooked the spiritual component of the cultural and intellectual scene of the time, where spiritist circles, occultist lodges and freemasonry were the norm rather than the exception. Curbelo himself was a freemason, as were most politicians of the time, and fiercely opposed the political hegemony of the Church. Freemasonry was, in fact, one of the driving forces behind the success of the country’s secularist agenda. In part thanks to their support, the government was able to pass radical legislation including the legalization of divorce in 1907, the prohibition of religious education in public schools in 1909, and the constitutional separation of state and church in 1917. As counterintuitive as it might seem, mysticism was a constitutive part of Uruguayan’s unique secular society.  

At the same time, as I pointed out above, authorities were embracing a public health model that included draconian laws and regulations designed to consolidate the nascent medical class. To come back to Curbelo’s clinic, all centers employing water, electricity, massages, or gymnastics as treatments required a licensed physician on the premises to avoid criminal prosecution. He complied but publicly remarked to the press that “despite being persecuted, arrested and fined by misinformed authorities, who followed the despicable advice of selfish and bastard interested parties, [he had] managed to consolidate and build a reputation for his clinic.”5 High profile alternative practitioners like himself were indeed facing a disproportionate level of scrutiny, even if actual convictions were rare. 

However, Curbelo epitomizes a general ambiguity towards spirituality that also took root in academic medicine. The same doctors that policed him experimented with hypnosis and suggestion in ways that sometimes were indistinguishable from quackery. Many of them even embraced hydrotherapy and other natural treatments, including sunbathing and exposure to open air. While at the institutional level health authorities tried to enforce a clear-cut border between academic and alternative medicine, in practice the distinction was blurry. Together they were able to displace the people who had been taking care of the sick for centuries: the Catholic Church.

Notes

[1] Olascoaga, 114

[2] Barrán, 13-17

[3] Fischer, 59

[4] “Fe, Esperanza y Caridad,” 545

[5] ibid.

Works Cited

“Fe, Esperanza y Caridad.” Rojo y Blanco, 26 May 1901, 545-546.

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

Fischer, Diego. Serás mía o de nadie : la verdadera muerte de Delmira Agustini. Montevideo, Random House Mondadori, 2013.

Hilaire, Edgardo. Minas : sus progresos y sus bellezas. Montevideo, El Arte, 1907. Olascuaga Bachino, Federico. La masonería en el este : una historia por contar : orígenes y primeras etapas en Minas, Rocha, Maldonado y San Carlos (1879-1937). Montevideo, Editorial Fin de Siglo, 2018.

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