Research Group: Health, History and Society [Salud, Historia y Sociedad (SALHISOC)]

by María-Isabel Porras-Gallo

The starting point of the SALHISOC research group was a regional research project on poliomyelitis, funded by the Regional Government of Castilla-La Mancha (Junta de la Comunidad de Castilla-La Mancha) and FEDER funds in 2008. The group’s aim was to contribute to the analysis of the relationship between Science, Technology and Society by studying health problems which have been relevant to Spain, in general, and to the Comunidad de Castilla-La Mancha, in particular. The group also intended to stablish connections between the academy and the clinic and aspired to be a training space for researchers interested on the topic. Although unofficially starting in 2008, the official constitution was delayed until 2013, when we became one of the research groups of the University of Castilla-La Mancha in health sciences as well as part of the Regional Centre of Biomedical Researches (CRIB). Four scholars from this University – three from the Faculty of Medicine of Ciudad Real and one from the Faculty of Physiotherapy and Nursery of Toledo – together with two external Professors from the Universities of Valencia and Alicante became affiliated with the group. 

Research conducted by the group is devoted to our two main research lines:

The social history of diseases, particularly the history of influenza, rabies, measles, rubella and mumps as well as the history of neurological and disabled diseases, such as smallpox, poliomyelitis and leprosy. We study the social construction of diseases, the responses and the establishment of means to fight against them, and the articulation of ways of social reintegration. We pay particular attention to the role of Medicine, governments, society, association of affected people, non-governmental organisations and international agencies. We also analyse experiences of affected people.

The history of public health and of the politics of social protection. We study the collective responses offered by societies to health problems throughout history, and the configuration of the public health and politics of social protection, paying particular attention to the role of international agencies. Such international agencies include the Rockefeller Foundation, the Committee of Hygiene of the League of Nations, the World Health Organization, the European Association against the Poliomyelitis, and the Red Cross. In particular, we study the participation of these agencies in the establishment of international cooperation and in making this cooperation an indispensable part of national strategies set up to fight important health problems.

Since 2008, we have had access to several funded national and regional research projects. This has permitted the development of our research and our group, now composed of five scholars from the Faculty of Medicine of Ciudad Real -Marta Velasco Martín, Lourdes Mariño, María-Victoria Caballero, Pedro Luis Romera and María-Isabel Porras- and one from the Faculty of Physiotherapy and Nursery of Toledo -Noelia-María Martín-Espinosa-. The funding has also enabled the realization and presentation of four PhD theses, and the establishment of important national and international scientific relationships and collaborations with historians of science, general historians, historical demographers, and sociologists.

We have collaborated with Spanish researchers from different universities (including the University Miguel Hernández, the University of Salamanca and the University of Granada) through our participation in nationally coordinated research projects funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation from 2013 to 2019. American and Latin-American scientific relationships have been extremely important for our group. We collaborate with researchers from the USA, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Peru and Argentina. Working with them gives us other perspectives and information about similar research problems but focused on different places, and the possibility of putting together our knowledge and experience for improving researches. This has entailed the publication of books, dossiers of scientific journals, research exchanges and the organization of scientific sessions for the Latin American Association of Population (ALAP) and the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health (EAHMH) Congress. We are now participating in an Argentinian research project focused on the social construction of the confidence in the vaccines in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We have established scientific relationships with European professors and researchers from the University of Geneva, alongside many other Portuguese, French, German and Dutch universities. Some of these collaborators are part of our two current research projects. This includes Baptiste Baylac-Paouly from the University of Lyon 1, and Maria Teresa Brancaccio and Eddy Houwaart from the University of Maastricht. These three researchers, who are working on the case of the poliomyelitis, offer us the possibility of doing a comparative analysis of this health problem in four different European countries. Working with María-José Báguena, we have recently published a paper on “The Rise and Fall of State Vaccine Institutions in Spain (1871-1986) in an edited collection (Stuart Blume & Baptiste Baylac-Paouly (eds.), Immunization and States. The Politics of Making Vaccines, London & New York, Routledge, 2021). Working with the Portuguese Antero Ferreira, we have published in 2021 an introductory study to the reedition of the publication of the Portuguese pharmacist Manuel Jose de Passos, Aviso ao povo para nao morrer de bexigas Lima (1873). The book has been published in Portuguese and in Spanish.

The primary academic background of the majority of SALHISOC members is biology and health sciences. Many also hold qualifications in the history and philosophy of science. All staff members have to teach and do research. Two of us also have clinical tasks at the Public Health and Preventive Medicine Service of the General university Hospital of Ciudad Real and teach these subjects at the Faculty of Medicine of Ciudad Real (University of Castilla-La Mancha). At the same faculty, three of us teach ‘History of Medicine and Documentation’, ‘Basis of the Medical Research’, ‘Care Communication and Bioethics’, and ‘Epidemiology and Public Health in the 21st Century’. The other staff member teaches at the Faculty of Physiotherapy and Nursery of Toledo.

We have recently lost one senior and valuable researcher, María-José Báguena-Cervellera, from the University of Valencia and the Institute ‘López Piñero’, who died on 13th March 2021. For four decades, she has studied the introduction of the animate contagion theory in Spain, through the works of French and German bacteriological schools as well as the historical evolution of several infectious diseases (tuberculosis, cholera, rabies, smallpox, poliomyelitis, rubella and measles). We appreciate very much her capacity for altruistic collaboration, her accuracy, generosity and discretion, as well as the way she facilitated working together and us becoming, not only colleagues, but friends. All the current staff members of SALHISOC want to express our recognition and gratitude for her great work and contributions to the group.


Main funded research projects and results

Our scientific activity focuses on a range of topics related to the history of science and medicine. One major topic of interest is the history of the poliomyelitis, and the fight against viral diseases in Spain. We pay special attention to the international context, the relationships established with the World Health Organization and other international agencies, alongside the role of socioeconomical factors, laboratory and epidemiological research.

Three research projects have focused on this topic:

– The antipoliomyelitis health care in Spain in the 20th Century (the cases of Madrid, Valencia and Castilla-La Mancha): medical, social and political factors. Funded by the Regional Government of Castilla-La Mancha (Junta de la Comunidad de Castilla-La Mancha) and FEDER funds. [Duration: 01/04/2009 to 31/03/2012]. The fundamental aim of the Project was the reconstruction of the fight against the poliomyelitis, one of the main causes of people with disabilities during the last century, in Madrid, Valencia and Castilla-La Mancha throughout the 20th century.

– The eradication of polio and other viral diseases in the international context: the role of the laboratory, epidemiological research, and socioeconomic factors. Funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Competitivity/ FEDER. [Duration: 01/01/2013 to 30/06/2016]. In this Project we analysed the role played by the laboratory and epidemiological research and the socioeconomical factors in the eradication of the poliomyelitis in Spain. We also studied the transference of scientific knowledge from other viral diseases and the international sphere to the poliomyelitis research.

– The fight against viral diseases in Spain through its relations with the WHO (1949-1986). Funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Competitivity/ FEDER. (MINECO/FEDER). [Duration: 01/01/2016 to 30/09/2019]. The Project studied the collaboratives Programmes of the WHO with Spain and the Spanish participation in international activities related to the fight against viral diseases (rabies, smallpox, poliomyelitis, influenza, rubella, measles and mumps) between 1948 and 1986. We contribute to the history of international health and the reconstruction of the Spanish scientific and health politics after the Spanish Civil War. 

Our current scientific activity deals with two new topics: 1) the standardisation of the production and application of serums and vaccines in Spain, and 2) the impacts of international scientific research visits. These new topics, which are very related to our previous research projects, contribute to show the transformation produced in the fight against infectious diseases in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Italy during the 20th Century.

‘The Standardization and Application of Serums and Vaccines in Spain and Castilla-La Mancha and the Role of International Agencies (1918-2016)’. From 01/09/2018 until 31/12/2022. Funded by the Regional Government of Castilla-La Mancha (Junta de la Comunidad de Castilla-La Mancha) and FEDER. The Project studies the process of standardization of the research, production and distribution of anti-diphtheria, triple bacterial vaccine (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) and triple viral vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella). It also analyses the procedure for the administration of these vaccines in Spain and Castilla-La Mancha and the role played by international agencies (the Health Office of the League of Nations and the WHO), not only from the technocratic aspect of these bodies, but also from individual epistemic communities. The research is completely connected to our main activities devoted to improve our knowledge about the role played by international agencies in the responses against diseases and in the development of the public health. 

Grant Programmes for Research Visits and the Role of Public and Private Laboratories in the Fight against Infectious Diseases in Europe (1907-1985). Funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities/ Spanish Agency of Research (AEI) and FEDER founds. [Duration: 01/06/2020 to 31/05/2024]. From a transnational perspective, the project analyses the role played by grant and aid programmes for research visits of scientists (in the main European research centres) in making international cooperation an indispensable part of national strategies set up to fight important health problems, such as infectious diseases in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Italy. Results from the project will contribute to improve the knowledge of our group on the social history of diseases and the history of public health, particularly on the health management and policies to deal with the most prevalent infectious diseases in the European context. 

Apart from several scientific papers and chapters of books, our group has coordinated two dossiers in scientific journals (Dynamis in 2012 and Asclepio in 2020) and participated in three others international dossiers (Hygiea Internationalis in 2015, and Manguinhos in 2015 and 2020). It has also published and coordinated the following five books, with important participation of our main national and international contributors/collaborators:

– María Isabel Porras Gallo et al. El drama de la polio. Un problema social y familiar en la España franquista. Madrid. Libros La Catarata, 2013.

– María-Isabel Porras-Gallo & Ryan Davis, (eds.), The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919. Perspectives from the Iberian Peninsula and the Americas, Rochester (EEUU), Rochester, University of Rochester Press, 2014.

– María Isabel Porras Gallo et al. La erradicación y el control de las enfermedades infecciosas. Madrid, Libros de la Catarata, 2016.

– María Isabel Porras Gallo et al. Salud, enfermedad y Medicina en el Franquismo. Madrid, Libros de la Catarata, 2019.

– Porras Gallo, María Isabel, La gripe española, 1918-1919. La pandemia que cambió nuestras vidas y retó a la medicina y los profesionales sanitarios. Madrid, Libros de la Catarata, 2020.

Through our focus on the study of the social construction of diseases throughout history, the responses and the establishment of means to fight against them, as well as the development of the history of public health and the politics of social protection, we think about the role played by science, technology and society in dealing with health problems. Our critical reflection from a historical perspective helps to show the relationships among them and to better understand the diseases affecting our societies. The importance of this role during the current pandemic encourages us to continue working in the same direction in the future, to contribute to improving society’s understanding of the health problems it faces.