"Innovation on the Reservation: Information Technology and Health Systems Research Among the Papago Tribe of Arizona, 1965-1980"
Friday, April 14, 2017 - 3:35pm
275 Nicholson Hall
Refreshments at 3:25pm
Jeremy Greene
Department of the History of Medicine
Johns Hopkins University

In May of 1973, an unusual collaboration between the NASA, the Indian Health Service, and the Lockheed Missile and Space Company promised to transform the way that members of the Papago (now Tohono O’odham) Nation of Southern Arizona accessed modern medicine. Through a system of state-of the art microwave relays, slow-scan television links, and mobile health units, the residents of this vast reservation—roughly the size of the state of Connecticut—would access physicians remotely via telemedical encounters instead of traveling to distant hospitals. The STARPAHC (Space Technology Applied to Rural Papago Advanced Health Care) partnership lasted from 1973 to 1977, but its legacies continue today.

The mission of STARPAHC was twofold: first, to help NASA test out its new Integrated Medical and Behavioral Laboratory Measurement System for use in future manned space flight, second, to help the IHS assess the role of new technologies for providing care across a vast rural landscape. While other accounts have explored the role of STARPAHC as an early telemedical system, little has been written on how or why the Papago reservation became an experimental site for biomedical communication technologies. We argue that STARPAHC was not entirely unprecedented, and had roots in other Cold War investigations into the role of health technologies in domestic and international health policy. Well before NASA became involved on the Papago reservation, the IHS had designated the Papago reservation as a “population laboratory” for testing new communications technologies inpublic health and primary health care, and tribal leadership had likewise developed this role through engagements with other forms of prototype electronic medical technologies.

This paper explores the configuration of the Papago reservation as an experimental site whose value derived in part from the ability of stakeholders in the IHS, the Peace Corps, and NASA to generalize its terrain to stand in for any number of other Native American reservations, villages in Malawi, Liberia, and Korea, or extra-terrestrial landscapes, respectively, as a proving ground for health communications technologies. This talk, drawn largely from archival materials and published articles is part of a larger project on the uses of communications technologies to resolve disparities.