Sanitation in Rio de Janeiro

Date: 1904
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


Brazil's early efforts to centralize and implement plans for urban renovation in Rio de Janeiro reached their climax after the 1902 election of President Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves, who instituted a comprehensive plan to beautify Rio and eliminate the diseases that had long plagued the city: smallpox, bubonic plague, and yellow fever. Engineers and construction crews thus dramatically revamped downtown Rio while the elimination of diseases was entrusted to Dr. Oswaldo Cruz.

Cruz and his teams of "mosquito inspectors" (like those pictured here) travelled around the city to destroy disease vectors. They thus drained stagnant water, killed rats, and, most importantly, sought out the larvae of the Aedes aegypti mosquito that, as had been recently proven by Carlos Finlay, were responsible for spreading yellow fever. Cruz's war against disease in Rio was one of the most impressive public health campaigns in history: by 1909, yellow fever had been completely eliminated from the city. His sanitation techniques were lauded and, with varying degrees of success, replicated throughout Latin America.

Although it might seem obvious that these efforts to improve conditions in Rio would have been supported by the city's people, such was not necessarily the case. Rio's poor were, sometimes violently, opposed to Rodrigues Alves' renovations. The downtown construction projects had in fact further marginalized them from the Rio's economic and cultural life. For example, beautiful new trade houses were constructed that facilitated the export economy that made Brazil's elites rich while the trade of the poor was made more peripheral because new streetcars and trains did not service their neighborhoods.

The poor also resisted the public health campaign because, for many, the "mosquito inspectors" created more problems than they solved. They destroyed unsanitary buildings, but the poor often had no where else to go. They quarantined infected persons who, for the most part, then died in isolation. In 1904, a government bill that required everyone to receive smallpox vaccinations--a poorly understood and feared procedure--catalyzed a massive riot in which the poor targeted precisely those urban improvements made by and for the rich, streetcars, electric lights, and modern new buildings. The unequal and, according to many of the poor, insidious application of elite science to early twentieth century Rio illustrated some of the challenges and conflicts inherent in "modernizing" an urban space that was understood and experienced very differently by various population groups.

Reference: Meade, Teresa A. "Civilizing" Rio: Reform and Resistance in a Brazilian City, 1889-1930. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

CITATION: "Spraying roofs to prevent Yellow Fever." From: Cruz, Oswaldo. Os servicos de saude publica no Brasil: especialmente na cidade do Rio de Janeiro: de 1808 a 1907. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0040955.