‘To Awaken the Medical and Hygienic Conscience of the People’: Cultivating Enlightened Citizenship through Free Public Healthcare in Haiti from 1915–34

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Abstract: This paper addresses the relative scholarly oversight of the history of public health in Haiti through a close examination of the colonial public health system constructed and operated by the United States (US) during its occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934. More than simply documenting a neglected aspect of Caribbean history, the paper offers the US occupation of Haiti as a remarkably clear example of a failed attempt to use a free public health service to cultivate a health conscientiousness among the Haitian citizenry through the aggressive treatment of highly visible ailments such as cataracts and yaws. I argue that the US occupation viewed the success of the Haitian Public Health Service as critical to the generation of a taxable, compliant and trusting citizenry that the colonial state could enter into a contract with. This idealistic programme envisioned by the US occupation was marred by financial mismanagement, racism, delusions of grandeur and contempt for Haitian physicians that resulted in the production of a far more precarious public health service and administrative state than the US occupation had hoped. By the time the Great Depression arrived in 1930 the Haitian Public Health Service was gutted and privatised, having successfully provided the majority of Haitians with free healthcare, yet failed to have persuaded them of the value of being governed by a centralised administrative state.