Salvador Allende: Chilean President, Advocate of Social Medicine

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In the 1930’s Salvador Allende, a public health physician, served as Chilean Minister of Health. He produced an analysis of the social origins of disease and suffering in Chile, La Realidad Medico-Social Chileña, arguing that the solution to health problems lay not simply in improved medical care but also in better sanitation, housing, nutrition and working conditions. Echoing Virchow, Allende wrote: “[I]t is not possible to provide health and knowledge to a malnourished people, dressed in rags and working under merciless exploitation.”

These ideas were eventually embodied in the political program of the democratically-elected Unidad Popular government in Chile. Allende served as President of the Unidad Popular government from 1971 until his government was overthrown in a US-sponsored military coup on September 11, 197. Allende died in the coup which broke Chile’s long tradition of democratic government and initiated a long period of military dictatorship under General Augosto Pinochet.

Allende’s most famous document on Social Medicine is La Realidad Médico-Social Chilena (Chile’s Medical Social Reality which was published in 1939. Selections of this document were in 2006 in Volume 2, No 3 of of Social Medicine (English) and Medicina Social (Spanish) along with an introduction by Claudio Schuftan; the Spanish site also contains the original health platform from one of Allende’s presidential campaigns. The original version of La Realidad Medico-Social Chileña can be found (with a bit of searching) at the very rich Archivo-Chile.

For more information on Allende in Spanish consult the Salvador Allende archives run by the Partido Socialista. Salvador Allende: Chile’s Voice of Democracy offers English translation of some of Allende’s writiings and speeches.

To read documents related to US involvement in the 1973 coup (“the Latin American 9/11”) visit the National Security Archive website. Wikipedia offers a more general view of this “watershed event in the history of Chile and the Cold War.”

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