Inoculating Against Barbarism? State Medicine and Immigration Policy in Turn-of-the-Century Argentina


The border in turn-of-the-century Argentina was a place of heightened anxiety. State officials ignored the nation's vast land borders and focused on the port, located in the capital city of Buenos Aires, which attracted nearly six million European immigrants in the decades after 1870. Federal authorities were seeking to attract new immigrants and yet they were terrified that opening their gates would allow entry among the potential citizenry a new category of “toxins” dangerous to the national body. The authorities hired physicians as gatekeepers to identify desirable and undesirable traits that went beyond the definition of communicable disease. Science and medicine appeared to provide a means of legitimating a variety of attempts by the state to control the makeup of the population; in reality, the state's power to inspect immigrants for disease, racial toxins, social upheaval, and political instability was minimized by realistic decisions to open borders and by a weak and limited ability to control the influx of people. Alongside calls for immigrant selection there coexisted a strong trend in political discourse that sought to build a unified, homogenous national culture by accepting and assimilating the foreign masses. Both approaches, however, had similar goals – the material progress of the nation, the advancement of Argentina's “civilization,” and the erasure of traces of “foreignness” among the new population.



Publication Date


Journal Title

Science in Context


Cambridge University Press

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Document Type



2006 Cambridge University Press