Altitude Sickness

Date: 1929
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


The man pictured here suffered from polycythemia vera, one of several illnesses endemic in the high altitudes of the Andes that Peruvian doctor Carlos Monge-Medrano called chronic mountain sickness. In 1927, Monge led the first of his several expeditions into the Andean highlands to study the effects of high altitudes on human physiology, both in people from lesser heights attempting to acclimatize and in indigenous peoples who had lived at 10,000-15,000 feet for many generations. Chronic mountain sickness resulted from loss of acclimatization and though it was most frequent in travelers to the Andes, its symptoms did often occur among Andean natives (see Monge's article for more details on these conditions).

Whereas earlier expeditions to study Andean biology from the U.S. and Europe had found that indigenous peoples born at high altitudes were physically, mentally, and culturally underdeveloped, Monge and his team considered the physiology of Andeans to be superior to that of people raised at sea level. By conducting a variety of exercise-based tests, Monge came to the conclusion that Peruvian highlanders had adapted to their oxygen-deprived environment in ways that made them naturally more athletic than Peruvians from the coast. His science was thus a sort of national vindication and, by debunking the idea that sea-level physiology was "normal," created what amounted to a new field in science: high altitude biology.

In 1931, Monge and his team founded the Instituto de Biologia y Patologia Andina, the first institute of scientific research in Peru. The institute was created under the aegis of the faculty of medicine at San Marcos University, received financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation, and, in 1940, became a national institution. According to historian Marcos Cueto, the Institute of Andean Biology was a paradigm of scientific excellence in a region normally relegated to the "periphery" of the scientific world.  Unlike many Latin American centers of science, Monge's institute was led by local experts, could function without imported equipment, had research interests akin to and bolstering those of its own country, and had a specialized focus that attracted attention from wealthy countries (the U.S. worked with the institute on issues of altitude affecting pilots).

Reference:  Cueto, Marcos. "Andean Biology in Peru: Scientific Styles on the Periphery." In Isis, vol. 80, no.4. (Dec. 1989), p. 640-658.
CITATION: Malade de l'observation--Polycythemia Vera associated with altitude sickness. From Les erythremies de l'atitute: leurs rapports avec la maladie de Vaquez etude physiologique et pathologique. Paris: Masson, 1929. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0041058.