Exotic history and violent conflict between civilizations can spice any tale, including a medical story. This one makes a good read. A Harvard-trained Mexican physician, reports Jo Tuckerman in the Globe, is trying to disassemble the standard account that European diseases markedly propelled the fast conquest of the Americas by colonial powers. She reports a new interpretation of events in Mexico. Resistance by native cultures, mainly that of the dominant Aztecs, collapsed despite well-developed military and governmental institutions.
Disease, she is told by an epidemiologist from the National Autonomous University in Mexico’s capital, was indeed a major player. But the worst of it appears to have been a hemorrhagic fever that, from historic accounts, does not fit any of the European diseases introduced to the region at the time, including bubonic plague, typhus, small pox, and measles. The new analysis stems largely from reports by the personal physician to the King of Spain, who provided detailed descriptions of symptoms. Tuckerman’s stroll through historic epidemiology is not without caution. She turns up other scholars who still think a prime reason for the fast decline in the native Mexican population was, indeed, lethal Old World disease.