Laboratories of Consent: Vaccine Science in the Spanish Atlantic World, 1779-1840

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This dissertation examines the colonial history of medical rights in Latin America through a study of the world’s first vaccine. The Spanish introduced the smallpox vaccine to their empire in 1804, along with royal orders that vaccination be voluntary and medical consent a natural right ceded to parents. Yet, the vaccine first arrived there incubated in the bodies of two enslaved girls. Doctors would continue to rely on enslaved, indigenous, and other dispossessed bodies to conserve the vaccine for those otherwise accorded this ostensibly universal right. Their doing so prompted profound questions about individual liberty, embedding vaccination into struggles over the abolition of slavery, parental rights, and the preservation of colonial rule. By analyzing the politicization of preventative health, the dissertation follows the vaccine through the Spanish Caribbean and Mexico to ask why imperial—and later, national—authorities protected voluntary vaccination, what this choice meant for parents and patients, and what this story can tell us about the meaning and value of consent in an era of both race and rights-making.

To understand how consent operated, I trace the vaccine through the bodies that sustained it, examining the gendered and racialized claims to medical authority that legitimized the vaccine, the state’s patriarchal formulation of consent to it, and the responses and rejections of colonized subjects to both. Medical texts, newspapers, legal codes, orphanage records, plantation guides, and government reports related to the vaccine reveal that recognition of medical rights was inconsistent and often determined by elite assumptions about reason and bodily difference. Racial and sexual politics informed decisions about which bodies were best suited to incubate and test the vaccine, whose knowledge was deemed a threat to public health campaigns, and ultimately, who should be recognized as a parent, worthy of rights and capable of informed consent.

Amidst political and social unrest, I argue that these articulations worked to uphold colonial structures of power, as healthcare became woven into the fractional freedoms accorded to and claimed by subjects and citizens. Medical consent, as it was envisioned and employed in vaccination policies, helped to reinforce these hierarchies even after independence. Mexico retained voluntary vaccination, but the medical rights of women and men, particularly those of indigenous and African descent, remained restricted by assumptions about culture and competence. By tracing the vaccine through the postcolonial era, my project addresses the enduring effects of colonialism across political discourses of liberalism and access to resources and care. Such historicization suggests the limits of consent and prompts a more ethical conceptualization of "informed refusal" that embraces and respects indigenous and other cultural articulations of bodily autonomy.






Yero, Farren (2020). Laboratories of Consent: Vaccine Science in the Spanish Atlantic World, 1779-1840. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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