Forgotten Scientific Histories of Many Mexicos, A Conversation with Gabriela Soto Laveaga


Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Jennifer Berglund


Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host! Today, I'm speaking with Gabriela Soto Laveaga, a professor of the History of Science in the History of Science department at Harvard, who researches Latin American history, science, and technology. In our conversation today, we discussed two forgotten narratives about science and technological discovery in Mexico, and examine why history forgets these stories, as well as the consequences of forgetting. Here she is! Gabriela Soto Laveaga, welcome to the show!


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 01:10

Thank you so much for having me.


Jennifer Berglund 01:17

Originally, you wanted to be a journalist, but you were eventually sucked into the academic life to study the history of medicine and the social history of medicine. Tell me the story of what drew you in and what you discovered while investigating those topics.


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 01:36

I think it's it's not surprising that I ended up in academia because my father was also a professor. And I think a part of me when you're young, you don't want to be doing what your parents are doing. And I'm interested that use the word sucked in because in a way, it really was fighting to be something different and ending up in the career that was meant for me because I, I love it so much. And as my dad did, so


Jennifer Berglund 02:01

What did he study? And where was he a professor?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 02:03

So he, he went to USC, University of Southern California, and his PhD was in philology. Philology is the science of language. And he taught for decades at Cal State LA in Los Angeles. As you mentioned, I initially was interested in journalism. And this was in the early mid 90s. And I recall one specific event. I was reading a newspaper article in the LA Times, and they were talking about the Shining Path. And this was a terrorist organization in Peru. And this one phrase, which decades later I can still remember because I knew it was wrong. And it said, the roots of the Shining Path, go back to the 1980s. And I knew this was wrong because the roots of violence and dislocation in this area went back hundreds of years, at least, to the conquest. And I said, hm, that journalist doesn't quite know that the link that they're making is too shallow. And I said, if I want to be a better journalist, I need to go back and understand the history of the region in a better fashion. And that was it. I started my doctoral program, and that continued on.


Jennifer Berglund 03:19

But you studied the history of medicine, and the social history of medicine. What drew you to that topic?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 03:26

That's a great question, because my degree is in history of Latin America, but the topic I was working on for my dissertation, which became my first book is really on the history of steroid hormone production. And in order to understand steroid hormone production, Mexico was the leading country in the production of steroid hormones, because there was a wild yam found in Mexico from which the first oral contraceptive was derived. So in order for me to tell that story, I went to the chemistry labs at UNAM in Mexico City. I spoke with botanists, I spoke with biologists. And little did I know that the history that I was writing and the questions that I was asking, were much more a way of thinking of history of science. So when I finished my degree, I did a postdoc at UC San Francisco at the medical school, there's a department of medical anthropology and history of medicine there. And that was really where my interest in this area not only took off, but I had found my home. These were the conversations that I had been having by myself and suddenly found my people and the way to look at the world from the key questions to ask about society from that lens.


Jennifer Berglund 04:42

I want to go back to that topic of the discovery of oral contraception in Mexico in a minute. But first, I want to talk about your interests now, sort of generally, which involve asking questions about why certain individuals, institutions, or nations get written out of historical narratives. Tell me about that, and specifically, tell me about the patterns that you've uncovered in your research.


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 05:07

So that is one of my key driving questions when I'm talking about what drives me as a scholar, what drives me as a researcher? It's really beyond narrative. Beyond narratives beyond how we tell history, it's this question of what are the stories that are examined? What are the stories that get written about and the stories that get remembered. And working in a space such as Latin America, when we think about scientific production, when we think about technological innovation, this is a region of the world that doesn't necessarily come to mind as a prime space to be having these conversations. And this is incorrect. If we think about innovation, if we think about science in these spaces, it is a rich area, so dense in terms of the contributions that it has given on a global scale. But the reason, I started to ask why don't we know these stories? Why did I have to be in grad school to find out that Mexico was the birthplace of the pill? Why had I not grown up with these stories or heard about them? So this launched me into what I hope is a lifelong career of asking similar questions about the stories that we tell why we tell the stories and the histories that we remember. And when you have that frame, when you have those driving questions, not surprisingly, you begin to see the stories that are written between the lines, those that you find in the footnotes, and those are the stories that I'm most interested in writing about and uncovering. They're there, it's just a matter of rewriting them into the larger narrative of our historical past.


Jennifer Berglund 06:47

Your first book was about the discovery and development of oral contraceptives in Mexico. Tell me more about the story there. And why do you think that history has been largely forgotten?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 07:01

So the book was just translated into Spanish this year, one decade after it came out in a print in the US for a variety of reasons. The press, which is on Fondo de Cultura Económica, which is the most important press in the Americas, for Latin America, there was delays, etc. And the reason I mentioning this is that in the last few weeks, I have given close to three dozen interviews about this book. So it's had a Renaissance or rebirth, but they have become really interested in is this notion of why hasn't this story been told? This is such a point, that would be of national pride, but also, really, as I was saying earlier, changing the narrative, not just of a society, but as a country in terms of innovating in terms of creating technology. So the constant question is the question that you just asked: Why aren't these stories known? What are the narratives that don't make it? So I just wanted to say that this is a conversation that I've been having a lot in the last few weeks, which is wonderful, but surprising as well, because as I said, this book came out a decade ago, and it's been relaunched, and is finding a completely different life. But in a nutshell, to get back to your question, that Jungle Laboratories looks at the quest for synthetic steroid hormones.


Jennifer Berglund 08:25

Jungle Laboratories is the name of your book.


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 08:27

Yes, Jungle Laboratories. And the reason why there was this global search to find synthetic steroid hormones, or steroid hormones that could be produced outside of the human body, was that they were believed to be cure alls. At the beginning of the 20th century the idea was that if synthetic hormones could be produced at a commercial level, they would cure everything from eye infections, obesity, hysteria, miscarriages, you name it, the belief was that they could solve it. So not surprisingly, the large pharmaceutical companies were in hot pursuit of trying to find a way to derive these substances outside of the human body. And there's a wild yam that is found in southeastern Mexico, and it's a giant yam that could weigh up to 120 pounds.


Jennifer Berglund 09:17

Oh, wow, really?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 09:19

Yes! And within it, it contained a chemical substance. It was a sapogenin from which another chemical substance diosgenin could be derived, which served as the building block to get progesterone and from progesterone, you could get estrogen and testosterone. And the reason why this was important, is that within days of the discovery, more progesterone was synthesized from the two yams that were initially found than have ever existed in the history of mankind. And this was super important because at the time, in the early 1940s, one gram of progesterone was valued at more than one gram of gold. So you can imagine how this changed not only history of medicine, but of patent medication, of chemistry and what can be done. But it also, and this is what the book really centers on, it changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Mexican men and women who dug up the yam. Because this book began with a simple question. Tons of yams were needed. And the question was, how do all these yams, these tons of yams, get to the pharmaceutical companies in order to be processed and transformed into medications? And the question was, it was the labor of rural Mexican men and women. And I'll just mention this because the question was specifically about the discovery of the pill. On the patent to the pill, there are three men Carl Djerassi, George Rosencrantz and Luis Ernesto Miramontes. And Luis Ernesto Miramontes was finishing his degree at the chemistry institute at UNAM, and he was an intern, he was working at this company that was created to extract all of these substances from these wild yams when he stumbles on a problem, and he thinks what he has found is a way to stop spontaneous miscarriages in women who could not carry a fetus to term. But ironically, what he has discovered is the first viable oral contraception. So he's one of the three who was on the patent for the pill. And the reason why, in recent weeks, there's been so much interest in in this why hasn't the story been told before? Why isn't it known? Why don't school children grow up in Mexico grew up knowing his name? So it's opened up a series of really new and exciting questions about the afterlife of books that one writes.


Jennifer Berglund 11:58

Let's get back to this question of why has this history sort of been forgotten?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 12:05

That's a question that I pondered for years, as I was writing this, as I was researching it, as I was interviewing people, and I actually was able to interview Luis Ernesto Miramontes is a few months before he passed away. And I asked him this question, I said, this, in any other country, you might be on the currency, might be buildings named after you, or avenues, or your contribution to not just Mexican society, but global society. And I said, why is it? And he had a really curious answer. And I'm not fully convinced by his answer. But it's an important one, because this was his thought. And I said, Why have you not been remembered? Why has your contribution to science not been considered? And his response, and I'll explain it a bit in the second, was that in Mexico, it was mainly poets, essayist, and authors who were remembered, who were considered the great men and women of innovation, that there is more value for literature, and for culture, for dance, for cuisine, than there was for science. And I think there is part, he was definitely partly correct. But I also think there's a different, more historical, deeper answer. And that has to do with this perception, as I said in the beginning, that there are some regions in the world that are meant to be producers of science, and others that are dependent on these that can only import science, that they aren't necessarily exporters of knowledge, and aren't producers of knowledge. And I think that is a really pervasive thought. And it's not so much now, because there's so many other books that are coming out placing the centers of knowledge production in regions outside of the Western canon, which is Europe in the United States. But when we're talking about 15-20 years ago, these weren't that common. So it's a relative, in terms of history, historical terms, it's a relatively new shift. By relatively new I'm talking about two decades, but to be centering knowledge in other spaces, and giving them equal valence to other regions of the world.


Jennifer Berglund 14:13

But why?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 14:15

It goes in part to spaces that were colonized and spaces whose knowledge once they were colonized was seen as inferior or not equal to that of the colonizer. So most of these spaces that we're speaking about, in my case, Latin America, but also South Asia, and of course the African nations are spaces in which an outsider has come, colonized, and brought in the quote unquote knowledge. And even for something where knowledge is produced there it can often be repackaged and exported as something that really belonged to the, in the cases of these countries, of the colonizer.


Jennifer Berglund 15:00

I want to talk about another book that you're currently writing. It's about a similarly forgotten history. And that's of the Green Revolution in India and Mexico, the parallels between the two. First off, what tipped you off to this story?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 15:18

That's a really interesting question. So I had been working on a physician strike for many years, which is meant to be my second book. But I pushed that aside, it's become the poor child of my literary or my scholarly production. I fell in love with what will be what was meant to be the third book, but will now be the second book, because of something that that tipped me off. In the 1940s, Mexico creates the National Nutrition Institute. And the idea is, and this is not just Mexico, it's around the world, that food will transform not just bodies and individuals, but societies. And that food has this transformative power, but not just any type of food, it has to be specific food. And this is not new, the idea of how proteins or carbohydrates or specific foods, how they were consumed, goes centuries. There was this belief when the Spanish arrived in the New World that they could only eat their foods, and that's why they brought their foods. Because if they ate the food of the natives, they would become like the natives. So there was the separation in terms of so they brought wheat, they brought their pigs, they brought their cattle, they also even brought their own bees, so to produce their own honey. So this notion of you are what you eat has a very different connotation in these spaces. So this process of transforming societies through food was not new to the mid 20th century. As I said, this has been going on for centuries in these spaces. But there was something really interesting. When I start looking at these documents, and they keep referencing wheat, and the need for society to consume more bread, that to not consume as many tortillas as and of course, we're talking about Mexico, which is the land of corn. And this was a debate that had been going on for at least four decades, what was more nutritious, a piece of bread or a tortilla? I mean, the tortilla wins, but at this time, the debate is still going on. And I had a question that if they were pushing for wheat, where were they getting their wheat? Because Mexico was not a leading producer of wheat at this time, the late 1930s, early 1940s. But the state kept saying, oh, it's better for people to eat bread, and they must consume these other products. So that apparently simple question led me to this completely new research. And my project, which was going to be about health and nutrition really became one about agriculture, and about agro technology. Because it turns out that in the 1940s, Mexico becomes by the 1940s, and 1950s, one of the leading bread baskets, not just to the country, but of the world. Which was surprising to me, because I always assumed, as most people, that Mexico was a producer of corn, but by the 1960s, Mexico would be importing more corn than it was producing. And the wheat was being produced in northern Mexico in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation. They were using Mexican experimental stations, to experiment on seeds to produce more wheat, so seeds that would yield more. And these seeds become very important two decades later in the 1960s, when India and Pakistan are going through a devastating famine that is projected to kill millions of people if it's not stopped, and Mexico sends these high yielding hybrid wheat seeds that are shorter in stature than traditional wheat stalks, which was important because they wouldn't fall over. But they also yielded more. And it's such an important contribution that it launches, these are the Green Revolution seeds. So the Green Revolution, the best way to think about it is a new way of farming, where you need more fertilizer, you need irrigation, you need these hybrid seeds. And the idea is that all of these inputs, not surprisingly, will yield more. But it also changes how farming had been done in some areas of the world. In some ways, farming that had for millennia, been done in the same way with all of these new needs. You need to purchase seeds, you need to purchase fertilizer you need to purchase insecticides, you need to purchase pesticide and you need to create these irrigation fields. That suddenly meant for a lot of smaller farmers who didn't have the capital, they would now be going into debt, so a new type of farming was created. And for the first decade, it was miraculous. That's how it seemed. And these were time and time again described as miracle seeds. And the problem with these miracle seeds is all of these inputs that I just talked about, were also wreaking havoc on the ecology, on the groundwater, but just also on human health. And they were putting many of these farmers into debt, where they had not gone into debt, because it was you would reuse your seed from season to season. But now with these green revolution seeds, many of them could just be used for one season. So you need to purchase every year. So what I'm doing is completely transforms. But the idea of the Green Revolution was to produce more to feed a hungry world. And it turns out that the problem wasn't one of yield, it wasn't one about producing more, it was a problem of distribution, there was enough food and there is now, to feed the entire world. It's just not distributed as it should be. So the Green Revolution problem was, we need to produce more and more was produced, in large part because of these seeds that were developed in Mexico. So this research is following these seeds from their development in northern Mexico, to their arrival in northern India. I'm very interested in the connections and the conversations that take place between local farmers and the research institutions in these spaces. So for Mexico, the research institutions that they're working with, but in India, the research institutions that farmers are working with, and also the dialogue that Mexico and India are having at this time with regard to innovation. And I have found some pretty interesting things. Something that I learned a little later, but it still shocked me to realizing that I was going down the right path, that more than 60% of the wheat consumed around the globe can trace its origins back to Mexican hybrid seeds.


Jennifer Berglund 22:04

I mean, isn't that remarkable?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 22:05

It is remarkable! So, tracing back to these research stations. That's amazing. But also to have such a global impact, not only on wheat production, but also the type of wheat that is planted and consumed around the world.


Jennifer Berglund 22:22

Why don't people know this? Why is this a forgotten history? This is, I mean, this changed the world.


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 22:29

So everyone, well, in the world that I inhabit, The Green Revolution is very well known and very well documented. And so much is written about it. But it is very much a US centric story, because it takes place at the height of the Cold War. And at a time when the Soviets and the Americans were really in this not just ideological fight, but really on the ground fight for the bodies and minds. And one way to gain the bodies is through food. So this was really, it's a well known story in terms of food aid and technology aid that is taking place on the ground. The story that is less well known is of these connecting countries, the country where the research was done by Norman Borlaug, who later wins the Nobel Prize for this discovery was with the Rockefeller Foundation. But science is not an individual task. And his collaborators were Mexican, and the scientists and the farmers who were planting this in their fields, and who had the seeds to send this to India, this was all in Sonora in Mexico. So that part of the story is not well known. And it isn't well known because it depends where we start the story. And that's the type of stories that get written. So if we start the story in 1943, with the arrival of the Rockefeller Foundation to Mexico, and with the arrival of agronomists and scientists such as Norman Borlaug, of course, this is the story that we know. But if we push those bookends a tiny bit, what we get is a very different story with different participants, with different characters who come to the foreground. And that is a story that I'm most interested in. I'm not so much interested in retelling the story, the very well known story of The Green Revolution, but looking behind the curtain to see who else is there that hasn't been written about in these spaces.


Jennifer Berglund 24:34

You know, and I think one of the interesting things was that it was actually recognized when all this was sort of playing out in the 1960s that Mexico was being written out of this history. In fact, I think Octavio Paz, who is the Mexican Ambassador at the time, he sees all these Mexican seeds being imported to India and he writes a memo that Mexico is being written out of this History and the US is taking over. Tell me about that. What is causing him to make this observation and why isn't anything done about it?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 25:09

So when I found these memos, the ones we talked about the Octavio Paz memos in Mexico's foreign relations archive, I was absolutely struck because these were written in 1966. And he writes them, he keeps writing them every so often, I think the last was in 1968. And an article I wrote about this is coming out this month in agricultural history, that really questions how we tell these histories of the Green Revolution. And what he's saying in these memos. He's saying, though, it may be considered a modest contribution, what Mexico is doing is essential. But here in India, it's being written as if it is the United States that is bringing the aid. And though the United States, together with the Rockefeller Foundation, are bringing the seeds, Mexican agronomists are on the ground in India. And they are talking about the work that they had already done in Mexico. So he in 1966, is already saying, the media has crafted a very different story about aid and what aid looks like and who provides aid. And they keep repeating this story. And his warning in the mid 1960s is Mexico will be written out of this narrative, or it will have a very different role when the story is told. And he was someone, as you know, he would win years later the Nobel literature prize. So he was someone who was very aware of how to construct stories, how to chronicle the past. And so I think he was the best suited person to be seeing the landscape of a changing India of the time, and how the two superpowers were because of its geopolitical importance to how India was also being able to play itself off. And where do you place a country like Mexico in that narrative? It doesn't fit within this triad of which what is important, and this is what he's saying in the 1960s. He's saying Mexico's written out because it's not a convenient story. And we need to do something. And he tries to go to his diplomatic counterparts in Delhi, he writes to foreign relations in Mexico. And he gets very upset when there's this ceremony a couple of years later. And they thank the Rockefeller Foundation and they thank the United States, and they actually issue, India issues a stamp, about how wheat transformed how these sweet seeds transformed India. And he immediately goes back to his office, and he writes off this memo in, I'm assuming, just of anger or upset. And that's one of the memos that I find in the archive, where it says, I just came back from this event, Mexico is not mentioned once, you know, they're talking about these seeds, they have forgotten that they were Mexican seeds. And that is one of the memos that becomes this core part of the book. And as I said, this article that's about to come out.


Jennifer Berglund 25:12

We have a new exhibit at the Peabody Museum, which is how we started talking in the first place. It's called Muchos Mexicos, The Crossroads of the Americas. And it explores Mexico's rich history as a site of human innovation, creativity and cultural diversity. Of course, your research fits into this directly. But you know, however, we do sort of focus more on the rich cultural aspects of Mexico, rich and diverse cultural aspects, and as a site of cultural innovation, and we really don't focus on the science. You know, there are a lot of reasons for that, in our defense, we only have a small space to work with. Where does science and technology fit into that narrative?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 29:00

So first, I am thrilled that the museum is having this many Mexicos exhibit. I think there is, you know, so much to exhibit and learn from. And like you I was surprised that there wasn't more of a focus on science and technology because this would be, in terms of thinking about the many Mexicos, this is definitely one of those spaces in which there's an opportunity to change the frame of how we think about the country and to expand it beyond the cultural richness which is so needed to be understood, but it is also one of the many Mexicos that go within this definition. So I do wish that was more highlighted. But I'm glad that you're asking me about that because I think if the exhibit pushes either online viewers or in-person viewers to think about Mexico in a different direction, be it for example, in the realm of science or technology, we can begin to rethink everything from - I'll give you an example. When the Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica, they noticed that in the Aztec empire, which the capital Tenochtitlan was a floating city, well, they called it a floating city, but it was anchored, but it was in the middle of a lake. And even though these were sailors, many of whom had been to Venice, they could not believe the dimensions of this majestic city. What they didn't grasp was that the local people had a different understanding of land and water, that they needed the ebbing and flowing of tides and of the local rivers and of the lake in order to farm. But because they had a different conception, a euro centric in a European centered understanding that water and land are separate, whereas they understood is coexisting. They couldn't understand that what they were seeing was technology. That what the ebbing and flowing and the farming on the banks, but also the farming on these floating islands named chinampas, that that was a technology, an agro technology, a form of feeding this very distinct empire. So when you don't see it as such, it's easy to push aside and not catalog it within science and technology. But if you reframe this, as the dams and dikes might not look like our own, but they're serving this very similar purpose, or a purpose that we may not be familiar with, because their conception was that you couldn't have land without water, you cannot have water without land. That's a very different way of thinking about space, and thinking about the relationship. So one of the reasons why Mexico City today continues to flood and has flooded for 500 plus years, it's because of this lack of understanding between water and land. So one of the first things that the Spaniards did was tried to remove the water from the lake and expand the city. But this was the lake bed. So the water continues to return to these spaces. Even today, a couple of years ago, the International Airport flooded, you know, these are serious issues in a space where it rains during the rainy seasons sit for hours, and almost every day, you suddenly have a city that doesn't have enough water in some neighborhoods don't have water. And it goes back to this misunderstanding of the relationship between land and water. And that is a really roundabout way to get back to your question of what we can learn if we bring these stories in. And one thing we can learn is technology and science have sometimes very different manifestations of what we think these science and technology are on the ground. So it's learning to re-see or to see again, and to rethink what technology might be in these spaces. And I think the exhibit, by positing this idea of many Mexicos, of rethinking that innovation is well beyond cultural innovation, beyond even the cultural archaeological richness of Mexico, but to think of what was produced within this frame of science and technology and innovation, then that gives us a wholly different view of what Mexico really is.


Jennifer Berglund 33:46

Why do you think it's important for us to rethink these narratives?


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 33:53

That's a great question. I think it's important because what we're seeing reflected right now in our society, everything from calls for equity, calls for justice, calls for social justice, calls for teaching of different histories in classrooms, that there is a real need. Right now, I feel that we are at this juncture in our society where it's a fork in the road, and what kind of society are we going to be? And we have multiple choices. It's a fork that has many, many potential paths. And I think it's important to tell these different narratives. Because we are a richly complex society that has room and should have room for many origins stories, and for many approaches to how people who conform to society see and interpret themselves. There isn't a singular narrative. And there's a problem with having a single story, and that single story problem is that in order for it to work, in order for it to survive, has to be based on exclusion. And I think to bring in these narratives, it's about creating a much more inclusive society. And a key way to do that is by creating these, and focusing on, and learning about, and questioning, and pushing back against the stories that we know so that we have richer versions of our past that can only make us richer as a society.


Jennifer Berglund 35:35

Gabriela Soto Laveaga thank you so much for being here. This has been fascinating.


Gabriela Soto Laveaga 35:40

It was a real pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.


Jennifer Berglund 35:49

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen, and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Harvard's History of Science Department and to Gabriela Soto Laveaga for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a few weeks!