Theses Doctoral

Food for Every Mouth: Nutrition, Agriculture, and Public Health in Puerto Rico, 1920s-1960s

Gonzalez, Elisa M.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, Puerto Rico was transformed from an agrarian, mostly rural, and marginal U.S. colony into an industrialized, urbanized, and politically reorganized territory. For local administrators and public health experts, this transition necessitated confronting widespread mortality from infectious diseases and malnutrition as well as curbing population growth. This dissertation investigates the creation of knowledge about nutrition in Puerto Rico and its incorporation into political and public health practices during this transformative period. For this, it explores how nutrition sciences served to articulate debates about rural poverty and labor as well as how these notions informed distinct public health, welfare, and development interventions. It also analyzes the interaction between this activity on the island and global scientific debates and how local political economy and geopolitical priorities shaped approaches to the nutrition issue.
This dissertation first examines how nutrition became a public health concern during the interwar years through the work of biochemists, home economists, agronomists, and social workers. It then explores how these experts incorporated their assessments as part of rural hygiene programs during the Depression and of food policies during World War II. Finally, it analyzes the role of nutrition sciences in the implementation of child feeding programs, food enrichment regulations, dietary supplementation projects, and consumer education campaigns during the postwar years. It also traces the deployment of Puerto Rican nutrition experts as part of international public health and development programs. Throughout these decades, scientific innovations, conceptualizations of poverty, anxieties about overpopulation, and political economy priorities interacted in the articulation of nutrition ideas and their policy implications.
By analyzing these dynamics, the dissertation illustrates how nutrition expertise traveled and was reconfigured across scientific, governmental, and political spaces. During the 1930s and 1940s nutrition, agriculture, and public health experts advocated for a reconnection between the island’s food supply and local agricultural production as the fundamental strategy to improve Puerto Ricans’ diets and reform rural society. By the postwar years, these plans to promote agricultural diversification and greater food self-sufficiency became increasingly incongruous with the structural shifts provoked by the new development strategy of industrialization and modernization. Food technologies and innovations provided instruments for health policy makers to gradually adapt their agendas to these changes while recasting nutrition problems as technical issues to be fixed through the dissemination of new products, standards, and infrastructures.
The dissertation emphasizes the multiple geographical, disciplinary, and institutional exchanges that shaped how nutrition knowledge was conceived, translated, and generalized in health policy and political debates on the island. To do this, it draws upon archival evidence from government, philanthropic, and academic institutions at local, federal, and international settings. With this framework, the dissertation aims to situate Puerto Rico’s case within international health historiography by focusing on how the local emergence and circulation of nutrition ideas and practices related to global networks of medical and public health expertise. It also aims to contribute to the historiography of development and decolonization and the history of science and technology. Instead of explaining science and public health in Puerto Rico as the “good” effects of United States colonialism or as the transplantation of its biomedical traditions and technologies, this dissertation explores how the interaction between international, colonial, and local structures of power shaped the creation of nutrition knowledge, its political usages, and policy applications.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Sivaramakrishnan, Kavita
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 28, 2016