Health Care in Colonial Peruvian Convents

Health Care in Colonial Peruvian Convents

Last May I had the opportunity to conduct archival research in Arequipa, Peru. I went in search of fodder for my new research project on health and healing in colonial Latin American convents. I was not disappointed because not only did I find a bundle of fascinating documents, but I also got to ramble the colonial streets as a tourist. I love to combine archival research with convent tourism. I’ve always wanted to visit Arequipa especially because it holds one of the largest convents from the Viceroyalty of Peru (an enormous political jurisdiction run by Spain during the colonial period, covering most of South America west of Brazil).

The Dominican convent of Santa Catalina de Sena, founded in 1579, still houses cloistered nuns, but a large portion of the convent serves as a museum. It covers several city blocks and is open to tourists for a nominal fee. One can walk the streets of the convent, visit the reconstructed cells of nuns, peruse the large collection of religious art, and, from a rooftop balcony, admire the snow-covered volcano of El Misti.

Some of the best health care in colonial Latin America was found in female convents.1 Well-run infirmaries, staffed by nurses and servants of indigenous and African descent, provided sick patients with diets rich in proteins and the comfort of prayer and companionship. Although many convents employed male doctors, surgeons, and blood-letters to attend to chronic and acute illnesses such as breast cancer, they mostly relied on their own trained nurses and servant class to tend to patients on a daily basis.2

Most nunneries kept an ample stock of herbal and medicinal supplies. Religious communities not only grew some of their own healing herbs in the convent garden, but also purchased other medicines, powders, stones, syrups, and unguents from local pharmacies and suppliers.

Photo of a page from a 1795 document with flowing handwriting.
A convent ledger from Santa Rosa, 1795. (Sarah Owens/Nursing Clio)

While wading through archival documents from three convents in Arequipa, Santa Catalina, Santa Rosa, and Santa Teresa, I found convent ledgers that list many of these remedies and their costs. The accounting ledger from Santa Rosa in 1795 provides a fascinating snapshot of the types of items used to treat the nuns and their servants.

I found references to coral, nitrate salt, tincture of castor, spermaceti (derived from the sperm whale), extract of palo santo (Lignum vitae), rhubarb, melon seeds, mustard, saffron, manna, and violets.3 Some of these same remedies were also being used in convents across Europe, such as in Renaissance Florence, where there was a strong culture of nun apothecaries.4

It can be exhausting plowing through complicated handwriting. Mercifully, the Archivo Arzobispal, where I conducted the majority of my research, closed every day by 1:00 p.m. That gave me time to feast on Peruvian specialties for lunch like chupe de camarones — a delicious shrimp stew — or rocoto relleno — spicy red peppers stuffed with ground beef served up with a tasty side dish of potato cake.

On this trip I did not have the heart to sample cuy, also known as guinea pig. But on a walking tour of Santa Catalina, my guide told me that the nuns bred cuy for their own consumption, housing them near the warm stoves in their private kitchens. Although I didn’t see them with my own eyes, one of the cells at Santa Catalina still has several cuyes living in an outdoor pen.

Photo of an old kitchen made of adobe and brick with a wood oven and two wood storage spaces.
A kitchen in the Convent of Santa Catalina. (Sarah Owens/Nursing Clio)

In the large convent of Santa Catalina, each nun had her own cell with servants and even enslaved women. These “cells” often looked more like small apartments, and depending on the economic status of the nuns, they could be lavishly decorated with imported furniture and dishes from Europe and Asia. Much of this decadent lifestyle changed with the Bourbon Reforms during the latter part of the 1700s.5

These strict policy changes, enacted by the Spanish Crown, attempted to exert greater political, religious, and financial control throughout the empire. Many bishops subscribed to these policies, seeking to curtail nuns’ power and autonomy.

Although the nuns of Santa Catalina still lived in their own cells, it appears that the imposition of la vida común, or communal living, forced the nuns to share meals in a common refectory and drastically restricted them from receiving visitors from the outside world. Unlike earlier times when wealthy nuns often employed their pick of physicians, by the end of the colonial period the abbess had to request special permission from the bishop for anyone but the official convent doctor and surgeon to enter the enclosed community.

Whereas the convent ledgers only provide lists of medicines, remedies, and food items entering the community, the abbess of Santa Catalina’s letters contextualize some of the ailments and status of the sick nuns and servants. They also attest to the fact that the world of servitude and hierarchy still remained firmly entrenched in this convent.

We learn, for example, that a servant needed a partera or midwife, to examine her because “she damaged her uterus by a physical exertion while working in the kitchen.” In another case, a nun who suffered from dolor en el lado, or side pain, requested care from two additional servants. In multiple letters we see the repeated requests for new servants when an indigenous or African servant was on her deathbed.6

At first glance, from our modern perspective, it’s easy to cast these nuns as wanting to live free from racial prejudices, but these documents show us how religious women, especially those who held positions of authority, often participated in and perpetuated racial hierarchies.

Photo of a dog with hair only on its head, laying in dirt with its eyes closed contentedly.
“Misti,” the Peruvian Hairless dog. (Sarah Owens/Nursing Clio)

During my last afternoon in Arequipa I paid a visit to the Museo de Arte Virreinal de Santa Teresa — an excellent art collection housed in the Carmelite convent of Santa Teresa. Like Santa Catalina, this convent is also still active and the cloistered nuns live apart from the common areas. The guide assured me, however, that the nuns still walk across the gardens in the early mornings and take care of their Peruvian Hairless dog “Misti,” who trailed us on our tour.

My favorite part of the tour was the convent garden, which still holds several medicinal plants. The guide showed me the Floripondio tree (Brugmansia arborea), explaining that in colonial times the nuns steeped the leaves into a potent tea to help alleviate the pains of cancer. This tree was a good reminder that I need to return to the archives to find evidence of its use in the colonial period.

A floripondio tree with white cone-shaped flowers, surrounded by small red flowers, all in a courtyard.
The Floripondio tree in the convent garden of Santa Teresa. (Sarah Owens/Nursing Clio)

The gendered aspects of healthcare in the Iberian empires have received little scholarly attention. Yet my preliminary research in Peru has shown that female convents invested considerable time and financial resources in obtaining the best possible medicines and ingredients for the care of their members. Indeed, religious women were crucial members of Latin America’s colonial healthcare system.

Further Reading

Bleichmar, Daniela. Visual Empire: Botanical Expeditions & Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Bleichmar, Daniela, Paula DeVos, Kristin Huffine, and Kevin Sheehan, eds. Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500-1800. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Burns, Kathryn. Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

Newson, Linda A. Making Medicines in Early Colonial Lima, Peru: Apothecaries, Science and Society. Leiden: Brill, 2017.


  1. Nuria Salazar Simarro and Sarah E. Owens, “Cloistered Women in Health Care: The Convent of Jesús, María, Mexico City,” in Women of the Iberian Atlantic, eds. Sarah E. Owens and Jane E. Mangan (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 128-147. Return to text.
  2. On breast cancer and nuns, see Sarah E. Owens, “The Cloister as Therapeutic Space: Breast Cancer Narratives in the Early Modern World” Literature and Medicine 30, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 295-314. Return to text.
  3. Archivo Arzobispal, Arequipa, Perú. Sección: Curia Diocesana. Serie: Monasterios, Santa Rosa 1762-1799. Return to text.
  4. Sharon T. Strocchia, “The Nun Apothecaries of Renaissance Florence: Marketing Medicines in the Convent” Renaissance Studies 25, no. 5 (2011): 227-647. Return to text.
  5. Some nuns rebelled against these reforms. See Margaret Chowning, Rebellious Nuns: The Troubled History of a Mexican Convent, 1752-1863 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). Return to text.
  6. Archivo Arzobispal, Arequipa, Perú. Sección: Curia Diocesana. Serie: Monasterios Santa Catalina, 1784-1851. Return to text.

Sarah E. Owens is Professor of Spanish and Director of the First Year Experience at the College of Charleston. Her research focuses on religious women of colonial Latin America and early modern Spain. She recently published a book, Nuns Navigating the Spanish Empire (University of New Mexico Press, 2017). She is currently co-editing a volume with Margaret Boyle, tentatively titled, Health and Healing in the Early Modern Iberian World: A Gendered Perspective.