Elizabeth O'Brien, PhD

Elizabeth O’Brien, PhD

Assistant Professor of the History of Medicine


Institute of the History of Medicine
The Johns Hopkins University
1900 East Monument Street
Baltimore, MD 21205

Research Interests

History of medicine in colonial and post-colonial Mexico and Latin America; history of surgery with a focus on obstetric surgery; history of fertility control and sterilization; history of ideas about race and indigeneity in medicine.


My research and teaching interweave the history of medicine with social and cultural history in order to examine themes of gender, race, religion, empire, and nation in the production of medical knowledge.

My current book project is based on my 2019 doctoral dissertation, which was entitled “Intimate Interventions: The Cultural Politics of Reproductive Surgery in Mexico, 1790-1940.” The dissertation received the 2020 Forum for History of Human Science Dissertation Prize, a biennial award which recognizes a recent doctoral dissertation on some aspect of the history of the human sciences. It was also the recipient of the 2020 LACS-SHA Richmond Brown prize, a dissertation award for work on the history of Latin America, the Atlantic World, the Borderlands, and the Caribbean. The book undertakes three main lines of inquiry: first, it analyzes how Catholic theologies of personhood have influenced—and been influenced by—modern medical ideas about pregnancy and reproduction; second, it reveals how racial prejudice has affected Mexican obstetric training and clinical practice; and third, it explores how historians can uncover experiential and embodied histories in Mexico’s rich medical archives. This research has been supported by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies/The Andrew Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the COMEXUS-Fulbright Program, the Tinker Foundation, the American Historical Association, and the History of Science Society.

Along with Dr. Altina Hoti, I am also co-director of a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities program in Scholarly Editions and Translations. We received funding to produce the first English-language translation and critical edition of Embriologia Sacra (1745), authored by Jesuit priest and Inquisitor Francesco Emanuele Cangiamila. The project will be carried out with the support of advisory board members Pamela Voekel and Bethany Moreton of Dartmouth University and Paola Bertucci and Ivano Dal Prete of Yale University.

In addition to the areas listed above, my BA training in Chicano/Latino Studies inspired a life-long interest in migration, immigration, and citizenship; I welcome inquiries from students interested in historical research on medicine and migrant Latino communities, or on any aspect of the history of medicine in Mexico, Latin America, or the Spanish Caribbean.

CV: https://johnshopkins.academia.edu/ElizabethOBrien/CurriculumVitae





O’Brien, E. “Pelvimetry and the persistence of racial science in obstetrics.” Endeavour 37 (2013): 21-28.

O’Brien, E. “‘If they are useful, why expel them?’ Las Hermanas de la Caridad and Religious Medical Authority in Mexico City Hospitals, 1861-1874.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos33.3 (2017): 417-442.

O’Brien, E. “The Many Meanings of Aborto: Pregnancy Termination and the Instability of a Medical Category Over Time.” Women’s History Review. Published online October 2020, will be in print 2021.

O’Brien, E and Bonnie Lucero. “Gender, Pregnancy, and Reproduction in the Atlantic World.” Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History (forthcoming).



AS.140.231 Health and Society in Latin America and the Caribbean
AS.140.106 Survey of the History of Modern Medicine
ME.150.722 Introduction to the History of Medicine