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Public Health Lessons from Manuel Nuñez Butrón

Manuel Nuñez Butrón

In the 1900s in Peru, Manuel Nuñez Butrón taught indigenous communities about modern health with an approach that is worth learning from.

Manuel Nuñez Butrón
Dr. Maria del Pilar Guillèn Núñez holds early editions of the journal Runa Soncco that were authored and edited by her grandfather, Manuel Nuñez Butrón. (Arequipa, Peru in November 2020)
Photo by Maria del Pilar Guillèn Núñez

Manuel Nuñez Butrón, a physician born in 1900 in Peru, set an example of how to change public health attitudes and behaviors among populations—but most of the English-speaking public health world outside of Latin America is unaware of his work.

That’s why Butrón’s granddaughter, Maria del Pilar Guillèn Núñez, Ph.D., began work to bring Nuñez Butrón’s legacy to life across the world. Dr. Guillèn Núñez, who is a professor of sociology at the Universidad de Arequipa in Peru, joined with Dr. Alisha Redelfs, a BYU professor of public health, and Dr. Paola Donoso, a BYU MPH student and physician from Ecuador, to research Butrón’s life. Their peer-reviewed article was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Who was Manuel Nuñez Butrón? He was the only physician assigned to an area the size of New Jersey in the High Andes of Peru. He was a public health educator. He was, as Dr. Redelfs said, “really beloved, and a hugely popular figure in the region with the backing of thousands and thousands of indigenous people.”

Nuñez Butrón taught the Indigenous populations about health while respecting their cultural traditions and maintaining good relationships with them. Dr. Donoso explained, “He went to help people, to give them medicine in their homes, and to change their beliefs about correct health attitudes.” Nuñez Butrón trained a group of followers called the Rijcharys, a Quechua word meaning “awakeners,” in public health and sanitation. Together they went out in communities and into homes, teaching, healing, and blending Indigenous culture with Western medicine.

In that effort, he worked to create partnerships with curanderos, the traditional healers, as well as the Seventh Day Adventists, who had been building schools to educate indigenous children. Butrón valued indigenous culture and empowered the people to learn Spanish, take pride in their heritage, and engage in healthy behaviors.

Throughout his career, Nuñez Butrón authored ten editions of a journal entitled Runa Soncco, a Quechua phrase that means “Indian heart.” Previously, printed copies of the journal could only be found in the National Library of Lima or in the hands of private collectors. Thanks to the work of Drs. Nunez, Redelfs, and Donoso, the journals are being uploaded to BYU Scholars Archive and made available for the public to read online for the first time.

A central tenet of Nuñez Butrón’s work was his approach to improving health. Dr. Redelfs described the way he worked and said, “He wasn’t breaking down their cultural traditions, he was adding to them and creating systems and structures that support that change.” She added that “it is common in public health, when we start working with a community, to try to ‘fix them.’ We don’t take into account their beliefs, knowledge, experience, or perspective, so this is a different way to go about it. It’s more inclusive, and it’s better received by the intended audience.”

By example, Nuñez Butrón taught the importance of respect and empathy. He taught about the importance of understanding and partnering with the community. His efforts earned him posthumous honors from the World Health Organization. Now, future generations of public health professionals will have the opportunity to learn from Manuel Nuñez Butrón as well.