UC Santa Cruz History Professor Matt O’Hara has received a prestigious $60,000 Public Scholars award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The funding will support O’Hara’s research project focusing on the strange and tangled pharmaceutical history of curare, an umbrella term that refers to a variety of plant-based arrow poisons long used for hunting game by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin.
O’Hara’s “Curare: A Tangled History Of Poison And Medicine” is one of 25 Public Scholar grants that the NEH funded this year. He will use the NEH Public Scholars award to finish researching and writing a book about curare.
“In the early twentieth century, curare attracted the interest of chemists, botanists, and pharmaceutical companies, and a few charlatans and hucksters, eventually becoming the first commercial muscle relaxant,” O’Hara said. “It is a story that travels back and forth between the U.S. and the western Amazon, especially Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru.”
“Curare: A Tangled History Of Poison And Medicine” delves into the corporations and individuals associated with curare programs in the United States.
“While we understand the sketchy outlines of this story, our knowledge is based on heroic narratives of North Atlantic researchers who ‘tamed’ the plants of the jungle,” O’Hara wrote in a project summary. “Sometimes these were self-congratulatory memoirs of participants, who described their exploration in terms of a scientific civilizing mission.”
An historian of Latin America, O’Hara has explored the history of early Mexico, with research and publications on the history of religion and politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, primarily. He is currently Provost of Stevenson College, served as chair of the History Department, and has received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Rockefeller Foundation
“This book is an exciting shift for me in terms of time, place, and theme,” O’Hara said. “As is the case for many historical projects, I stumbled across this project in the archives, uncovering a cache of documents left by some of the individuals in the curare story. “
This book will explore an intriguing question: Given its deep history, what led to the rapid-fire medicalization and marketing of an Indigenous arrow poison? What can this history tell us about the relationship between markets and medicines, the evolving ethics of medical research, and the origins of modern pharmaceuticals?
“This book will answer these questions, at once reconstructing a strange history of exploration, clandestine trade networks, and coerced medical experimentation, but simultaneously narrating the collision of peoples, cultures, and economic interests that transformed curare into a blockbuster drug,” wrote O’Hara in a precis of the book.