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, sterilization, and obstetric violence; history of ideas about race and indigeneity in medicine; popular protest and healthcare in 1930s Mexico.


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 first book project, Surgery and Salvation: Religion, Racial Medicine, and Reproductive Politics in Mexico, 1745-1940, is under contract with UNC Press. That book is based on my dissertation project, which received the Forum for History of Human Science Dissertation Prize, the LACS-SHA Richmond Brown Prize, and The Nineteenth Century Section of the Latin American Studies Association. Surgery and Salvation illuminates how religious and theological ideas influenced obstetric surgery over time; how race and class became organizing logics for discourses about surgical advancement; and how childbearing people in Mexico experienced, and sometimes contested, the ways in which patriarchal medical authorities influenced their reproductive choices. This research has been supported by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies/The Andrew Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Tinker Foundation, the American Historical Association, and the History of Science Society. During the 2022-2023 I am on research leave in Mexico with support from COMEXUS-Fulbright.

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.

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

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




Articles and Chapters

With Miriam Rich, “Obstetric Violence in Historical Perspective,” The Lancet, (399.10342): 2183-2185 (2022).

The religious history of Caesarean surgery and what it means for the abortion battle: How colonial powers used Caesareans to define the boundaries of unborn life,” Washington Post, March 24 2022.

Translation of and introduction to “Josefina Velásquez Peña’s Accusation Against Dr. Malda: Mexico City, 1930.” HOSLAC: History of Science in Latin America (2022).

With Farren Yero, “History of Health and Disease in Latin America, 1600-1870.” Oxford Bibliographies in Latin American Studies. March 2022.

“‘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).

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.

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

“‘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.

“La medicina científica y las Hermanas de la Caridad en la cuidad de México, 1865-1874,” forthcoming in edited volume on the Vatican Council I and its reception in Mexico, ed. Pablo Mijangos, Sergio Romero, and Matthew Butler. COLMEX. 2023.

Other publications, presentations, and media

UT Austin, Reproductive Rights in the Americas: An Historical Perspective,” September 2022

Rice University 2022, Race, Medicine, and Democracy Lab, January 2022

“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.

Collaborator: Denham, Diana and the CASA Collective. Teaching Rebellion: Stories From the Grassroots Movement in Oaxaca. PM Press, September 2008.


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

Histories of Reproduction, graduate seminar co-taught with Dr. Sasha Turner

OPHOM History of Medicine Survey 3: Science and the Practice of Medicine

OPHOM History of Medicine Survey 4: Biomedicine and its Consequences