Elizabeth O'Brien, PhD

Elizabeth O’Brien, PhD

Assistant Professor

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


My current research explores the interplay between surgical epistemologies and reproductive politics in Mexico, especially as related to theological, medical, and state-based claims about fetal life and maternal death. While my scholarship is on the history of these questions, I am also interested in current debates about obstetric violence, abortion, and reproduction, particularly in Latin America and the western hemisphere.

My first book project, Intimate Interventions: The Cultural Politics of Reproductive Surgery in Mexico, 1790-1940, uses archival as well as published theological and medical sources to examine how philosophical changes concerning fetal ensoulment, racial heredity, and surgical ethics played out under religious, republican, and revolutionary governments, thereby contributing to the formation of the Mexican state. The project also draws on hundreds of patient records in order to illuminate the experiential aspects of reproductive surgery, as well as to explore how religious and political efforts to influence reproduction affected women’s lives. Contributing to three historiographies—those of the Catholic enlightenment, science and medicine, and women and gender—the research explores the surgical origins of religious, political, and cultural claims on unborn fetuses, and historicizes the contemporary crisis of obstetrical violence in Latin America. This work has been supported by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies/The Andrew Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Tinker Foundation, and the Fulbright Program.

With Dr. Altina Hoti, I am beginning to work on a translation and critical edition of Embriologia Sacra (1745), authored by Jesuit priest and Inquisitor Francesco Emanuele Cangiamila. Embriología Sacra was a groundbreaking text in the history of medicine, due to Cangiamila’s insistence that priests throughout the Spanish empire perform caesarean section operations on dead and dying women. The purpose of the surgery was to administer the baptismal sacrament, thus saving the souls of unborn infants. By offering an English-language edition of Cangiamila’s work, we hope to contribute to scholarly and public debates about Roman Catholic theology, gendered medical practice, and fetal personhood.

In May 2019 I received a PhD from the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin, where I also completed a certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies. My MA is from the Teresa Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies, with concentrations in Anthropology and History. At Mexico’s National University (UNAM), I had the wonderful opportunity to obtain a diplomado in the History of Medicine. Finally, I earned a BA from the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University, where I took part in the College Achievement Admissions Program, and where I completed minors in Chicano/Latino Studies, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and American Indian Studies.

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

Recent publications


“‘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 Mexicanos 33.3 (2017): 417-442.

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


“Catholic Theologies, Legal Mandates, and Lived Realities: Abortion Throughout Mexican History,” included in a forthcoming volume on the politics of fertility control in a global historical perspective, edited by Cassia Roth and Diana Paton.