In the early to mid-twentieth century, the governments of Ecuador and Guatemala sought to expand Western medicine within their countries, with the goals of addressing endemic diseases and improving infant and maternal health. These efforts often clashed with indigenous medical practices, particularly in the rural highlands. Drawing on extensive, original archival research, historian David Carey Jr. shows that indigenous populations embraced a syncretic approach to health, combining traditional and new practices. At times, the governments of both nations encouraged—or at least allowed—such a synthesis, yet they also attacked indigenous lifeways, going so far as to criminalize native medical practitioners and to conduct medical experiments on indigenous people without consent.
Health in the Highlands traces the experiences of curanderos, midwives, bonesetters, witches, doctors, and nurses—and the indigenous people they served. Carey interrogates the relationship between "progressive" public health policy and indigenous well-being, offering lessons from the past that remain relevant in the present. Our best way forward, this history suggests, may be a compassionate syncretism that joins indigenous approaches to healing with science and a pursuit of environmental and social justice.