UCSB Santa Barbara Department of History logo

Prof. Soto Laveaga’s new book wins American Sociological Association award; recent reviews in TLS and UCSB Daily Nexus

Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects and the Making of the Pill

UCSB history associate professor Gabriela Soto Laveaga recently released a book examining the origins of the oral contraceptive pill.

May 14, 2010: Prof. Soto Laveaga’s book has won the Robert K. Merton Book Award. The Merton Award is given each year by the Science, Knowledge,and Technology (SKAT) section of the American Sociological Association for the best recent book published in science and technology studies. The Chair of the committee that awarded the prize writes:

“The committee agreed that Jungle Laboratories is an outstanding intellectual accomplishment–a complex and beautifully written analysis of the entanglements of knowledge, political economy, ‘nature,’ nation-states, political movements, Mexican workers, and laboratory science. The book is an exemplary contribution to contemporary science and technology studies, with important implications for future scholarship.”

Recent Reviews

Jungle Laboratories is Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s account of how a Mexican wild yam’s ability to yield artificial steroids launched a series of changes in the relationship between the nation’s scientific center and peasant periphery. The plant, barbasco, never went on to conquer the world like the potato; in fact, its inability to be successfully domesticated or transplanted out of southern Mexico is key to this story’s setting. It may have been chemists from the United States who first determined that barbasco yields diosgenin, a substance essential to the artificial synthesis of oral contraceptives and other pharmaceutical steroids. But they did not simply pick it off the ground. The work it took to gather the plant (and, more importantly, the knowledge to differentiate it from other local flora) was that of Mexican campesinos, and these are the heroes of Soto Laveaga’s story.

As barbasco came to have real value in the global marketplace, rural Mexicans cultivated not just the plant but also new forms of expertise. As revealed by the author’s interviews, even the lowliest workers developed some sense of which yams would yield more profit. Meanwhile, an emerging class of middlemen combined this knowledge with a newly acquired chemical competence to benefit from the barbasco boom. But few who gathered barbasco initially had any idea of the plant’s true pharmaceutical significance and the power that could represent. This would become a critical grievance and unique opportunity for a coalition of student radicals and government administrators who sought to educate and empower campesinos during the populist presidency of Luis Echeverría Alvarez (1970-1976).

The successes and failures of this attempt to organize the campesinos form the crux of Jungle Laboratories. Some of the story’s intricacies may be lost on those who are not familiar with Mexican political history and land tenure, but anyone would be moved by the campesino stories Soto Laveaga ably sows throughout the book and harvests at its conclusion. For the campesinos, barbasco might buy local infrastructure, a family business, or nothing, except for years of low-wage misery. It could tell the story of why they decided not to emigrate to the US or be the reason they shook the hand of the Mexican president. Soto Laveaga’s sympathetic but entirely unpatronizing inclusion of campesino voices validates her claim that battles over the knowledge of barbasco briefly transformed some workers’ identities, though many today are still unsure why anyone wanted what to them was little more than a weed.

Daily Nexus, March 31, 2010:
Titled “Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects and the Making of the Pill,” the book details the research Soto Laveaga completed during a seven-year stint in Oaxaca, Mexico studying the development of the pill. In her book, Soto Laveaga discusses the social, economic and political history of the barbasco — a type of yam indigenous to the Mexican region that can be processed to produce an oral contraceptive pill. The book also highlights the relationship between Mexican peasants and pharmaceutical companies that evolved to contribute to the formation of the contraceptive industry.
Full text of Daily Nexus article.

hm 3/31/10, 4/14/10, 5/15/10