In the study of medical history in the Latin American colonies, mundane historians have focused almost solely on the introduction and impact of Old World diseases and the economic exploits of commercial herbs like exported cinchona bark (quinine), rather than on medical practices of the colonies proper. Such studies tend to be narrowly focused on the development of professional or regular medicine, with scant attention being given to the human sector on the synergy of medical ideas and practices that occurred in the early colonial period and important contributions made to the Materia Medica by the native West Indians. Research on popular medicine has been the focus of anthropologists while accumulated listings of new herbs for centuries has been considered generally as herbal lore and tales of folk medicine, a seemingly cultural prejudice.

Historical studies of traditional healers, herbalists, and curanderos have often focused on their role and culture rather than on the nature and contributions of their healing practices or the medicines they used. Yet, no real understanding of medicine in colonial Spanish America can ever be achieved without knowledge of these medical practices that existed in the New World, combined with Spanish, monastic medicine that migrated to the Caribbean, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Florida.

The medical practices in Spain and its expansions to the New World was more diverse and eclectic than generally supposed. In the Early Middle Ages, following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, standard medical knowledge was based chiefly upon surviving Greek and Roman texts, preserved institutionally in monasteries. Monasteries became the only centers of medical teachings and practice in the Middle Ages, carried on the tradition of maintaining medicinal herb gardens, housing and training physicians, and providing infirmaries to nurse the poor and needy. Since the early teachings of medicine occured in these monasteries, its general school has been termed ‘monastic medicine’ as it developed through the centuries of the dark ages through to the renaissance.

Before the Spanish discovered the New World (the West Indies, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, continental America), the deadly infections of smallpox, measles, and influenza were ancient diseases. The deadliest of infections was the bubonic plague and Leprosy was not uncommon. The Native Americans did not have the immunities the Europeans developed through long contact with the diseases. Christopher Columbus ended the Americas' isolation in 1492 while sailing under the flag of Castile, Spain. Deadly epidemics swept across the Caribbean. Smallpox wiped out villages on native Americans, in some cases, in a matter of months. The island of Hispaniola had an estimated population of 250,000 Tainos on first contact. 20 years later, the population had dramatically dropped to 6,000. 50 years later, it was estimated that only 500 Natives were left. Smallpox then spread to the area which is now Mexico where it then helped destroy the Aztec Empire. In the 1st century of Spanish rule in what is now Mexico, 1500–1600 AD, Central and South Americans died by the millions. By 1650, the majority of New Spain (now Mexico) indigenous population had nearly perished.

Spanish monastic medicine was influenced by the Arabs from 711 to 1492, making it more advanced than practices in England, France and elsewhere in Christendom. Islamic physicians and Muslim botanists such as al-Dinawari and Ibn al-Baitar significantly expanded on the earlier knowledge of materia medica which started with the Roman Dioscorides from 90 AD. After Columbus brought back the chili pepper, allspice, vanilla and other fruits from the New World, the search was on for the discovery of herbal medicines in the Americas. This enriched the exchange that began to occur between Native American, African and European medical traditions in the Americas, becoming its own school of medicine.

Control of medical practice in Iberia was under strict control of the State, but in Spanish America it was exercised not only through the establishment of state institutions, but through the close working of the Church that promoted medical care as a charitable activity, a crusader legacy of the Hospitaller’s since many of the Conquistadors were Knights of Santiago and founders of the first hospitals in Hispanola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico.  The state and Church in Iberia sought to suppress practices that were incompatible with Catholic beliefs but proved impractical to the explorers and the conditions they met. Due to the shortage of trained medical practitioners sent on ships, the colonial authorities were relatively tolerant of indigenous medical practices, especially in their use and knowledge of herbal medicine and this enabled a process of exchange and fusion of monastic and indigenous practices that later contributed significantly to medicinal care back in Europe. Indeed, the Materia Medica would expand enormously.

A rich course, highly enlightening of a neglected aspect of medical history. 25 clock hours.