Director Series, History & Classics, Interviews
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Interview with Professor Linda Newson

We talk to the director of the Institute of Latin American Studies about the institute’s Caribbean and Latin American research initiatives.

Professor Linda Newson, who received an OBE in 2015 for services to Latin American Studies, became director of ILAS in 2012. She has been a Lecturer, Reader and Professor at Kings College London and has taught briefly in geography departments at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Cambridge. She has published extensively in English and Spanish, is the author of six monographs and was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2000, where she also serves on its International Engagement Committee as well as being a former Council member from 2007–10. Currently she is researching apothecaries and the medicine trade in early colonial Lima, Peru.

What does a typical day involve as director of the Institute of Latin American Studies?
No day in the Institute of Latin American Studies is like another. Much of my time is spent ensuring that the institute has an exciting programme of academic events that serve non-university as well as scholarly audiences. So a day might involve considering proposals for seminars or workshops, attending events to keep up-to-date with recent trends in the field, and developing networks with external stakeholders, such as embassies and NGOs. Not infrequently I will be meeting with an ambassador or cultural attaché. I might also have a meeting with a PhD student or deliver a workshop, for example on applying for research funding. If I am lucky I might get a few minutes to work on my research. One of the great advantages of being at ILAS is its outstanding Latin American library housed within the building.

Are there any particular initiatives or projects you are keen to push forward?
At the moment we are developing two initiatives. One is around the broad theme of the history of knowledge in Latin America where some innovative cross-disciplinary research is currently being undertaken. Under this umbrella we plan to develop international research projects on the relationship between history and anthropology, on nature and medicine, on collecting and display, and on critical theory. The aim is to insert intellectual developments in Latin America into broader discourses surrounding the history of knowledge, such as on the Enlightenment and scientific revolution. The second project focuses on the integrated Caribbean. The Institute is leading a School-wide initiative that aims to break down linguistic barriers to study of the region as a whole through developing programme of events around cross-cutting themes, for example, religion or piracy, and by establishing a network of scholars interested in looking at links within the region.

What was your own experience of being a student like?
I was a student in the 1960s when the government decided to develop the discipline of Latin American studies by establishing five university centres, of which the Institute of Latin American Studies was one. It also provided PhD scholarships, called Parry awards, for the study of the region. As an undergraduate I was fortunate in having attended a course on colonial Latin America and I jumped at the opportunity to pursue doctoral research with the support of one of these awards. When I began my doctoral research I had no knowledge of Spanish or Spanish palaeography! Very few British PhD students chose to work on Latin America in those days in part because travel there was not easy. My first visit to the region was by boat! However, apart from its intrinsic attractions, the fact that so little research had been done on the region meant that it offered huge opportunities to develop one’s own project and ideas. The same is true today.

What’s the focus of your current research?
My current research focuses on apothecaries and the medicine trade in early colonial Lima, Peru. Some scholarly attention has been paid to the small number of American plants that penetrated European pharmacopoeia in the early colonial period, such as cinchona (quinine) and tobacco, however, very little is known about the materia medica that were employed by medical practitioners in the Americas. For example, did they rely on imports from Spain or develop innovative methods involving Native American herbs and minerals. This research builds on my previous book which looked at the Portuguese slave trade to Peru, where I examined the medicines used to treat African slaves. Prior to this my books examined aspects of indigenous demographic and cultural change with a focus on colonial Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador and the Philippines.

Why do you think Latin American studies remains relevant to today?
I was attracted to study Latin America because it had been neglected by scholars. For me the fascination was its rich indigenous and colonial history, as it is for many visitors today. But more recent developments are of equal interest to other scholars and the wider public. The region contains some of the fastest growing countries in the world that are playing an increasingly important role on the global stage. It is an incredibly dynamic region and Latin American countries have been pioneers in many fields, for example, in social policy, in handling economic crises, in resolving conflicts, and in developing progressive environmental policies. There is much to learn from, and admire, in Latin America and this is now beginning to be recognised by the international community including the UK government.

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