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 Forum for History of Human Science Dissertation Prize, the LACS-SHA Richmond Brown Prize, and the Best Dissertation Award from The Nineteenth Century Section of the Latin American Studies Association. 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





“‘A Tacit Pact with the State’: Constrained Choice and the Politics of Abortion in 1930s Mexico.” The Journal of Women’s History 34.2 (2022).

“The Many Meanings of Aborto: Pregnancy Termination and the Instability of a Medical Category Over Time.” Women’s History Review. (Published online October 2020, in print 2021).
Winner, Best Article in the Social Sciences, Latin American Studies Association, Mexico Section.

“‘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.

With Bonnie Lucero, “Histories of Women’s Reproduction in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Choice Magazine, October 2021.

With Bonnie Lucero, “Pregnancy and Reproduction.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History. Ed. Trevor Burnard. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

With Farren Yero, “History of Health and Disease in Latin America, 1600-1870.” Under review. Oxford Bibliographies in Latin American Studies.



“La medicina científica y las Hermanas de la Caridad en la cuidad de México, 1865-1874,” accepted for publication in edited volume on the Vatican Council I and its reception in Mexico, ed. Pablo Mijangos, Sergio Romero, and Matthew Butler.


Other publications, presentations, and media

With Hanni Jalil-Paier, “The Crisis in Colombia is Rooted in Structural Inequality, and has been Exacerbated by COVID-19,” Washington Post, June 2021.

With Jimena Perry, “Colombia is in Crisis. Vaccine Nationalism is Making it Worse,” Latino Rebels, May 2021.

“Eugenics in Mexico and the Catholic Response,” The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. December 2019.

“Resistance and Agency in the History of Medicine: Decolonial Perspectives,” Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Latin America Section, April 22.

“Spiritualized Surgery: Settler Colonial Violence, Gender, and the Origin of Modern Catholic Claims about Unborn Life,” UC Davis, April 7.

“De-centering the History of Reproduction: The View From Mexico and the Global South,” April 22 Bowdoin College, Spring 2021.

“As Small as a Grain of Barley: The Bourbon State and the Caesarean Operation in New Spain, 1771-1810s,” Generation to Reproduction seminar series in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University, February 2021.

“Empire, Colonization, and Reproductive Violence: Centering Narratives from Mexico and the Global South,” Center for the Study of the Southwest, Texas State University—San Marcos, April 6 Spring 2021.

The Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, (invited talks sponsored and organized by Georgetown University and American University), “Eugenics and the Catholic Response in Revolutionary Mexico.” 22 November 2019, Washington D.C.

The History of Science and Medicine Colloquium, Yale University, “From Syringe to Surgery, and Back Again: Baptizing the Unborn in the Catholic World, 1770-1875.” October 2019.

“Healthcare and Hospitals in Mexico: Past and Present” For the Fulbright 2019-2020 Grantees. Mexico City, August 2019.
The Center for Latino Studies, University of Houston-Downtown, Invited Speaker: “Reproductive Politics and Latinx Communities.” Houston, October 10, 2018.

Seminario Permanente de la UNAM, Historia de la Medicina y la Salud Pública en América Latina, Invited Speaker: “Las Raíces Historicas de la Violencia Obstétrica en México.” February 2016, Mexico City.

Oaxaca Summer Institute, Invited Speaker: “Clinical Practice, Liberal Reforms, and the Expulsion of Las Hermanas de la Caridad: 1861-1874.” Oaxaca City Mexico, 2015.



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