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Spanish Colonial Health Care
Spanish Colonial Health Care, 1706-1821

Because medical doctors were almost nonexistent during the Spanish Colonial period, the health-care providers were members of the community. Curanderas (female healers) or curanderos (male healers) had a gift for healing. They cared for expectant mothers, the injured and the sick. Often skills were handed down through generations within a family, while others served as apprentices to non-related healers.

Many women healers specialized. A very important specialty was being a partera (midwife) in home deliveries. It was not unusual for a special bond to develop between the mother in labor and the partera.

Sobadoras were similar to chiropractors of today. They healed with massage, manipulation and adjustments of the spinal column. If someone fell off a horse and sprained a limb or twisted his back, he went to the sobadora for relief. If someone was suffering headaches or great stress, a massage might help ease the pain. All healers had the respect of the community.

What did curanderas or curanderos use for medication? The healers needed to learn about the curative power of native plants. These herbalists, or herbolarias , knew the power of each distinct plant. It might be the root, the stem, the leaves, the seed or the flower that brought relief to the sick. Most of these herbs were gathered and hung from the healers’ vigas to dry before being stored. When needed, they might be crushed, boiled and drunk as a tea, while other plants were eaten fresh. Still other plants were applied to the sick or injured directly in a poultice.

The impact of European diseases was devastating. Children died from measles, and the common cold and respiratory diseases were widespread. People took their water from irrigation ditches and sometimes contracted dysentery and typhoid.

The most deadly disease was smallpox. Outbreaks claimed lives about every ten years. In 1805, 87 percent of 6,930 Albuquerque residents had contracted smallpox at some time, and scars left by the disease were evident in many faces. After a cure was discovered and a vaccine distributed, Dr. Cristóbal Larrañaga, the military surgeon from Santa Fe began vaccinating Albuquerque children in the early 1800s. (Surviving adults were immune.)

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