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Historian awarded prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to study Peruvian girl who gave birth at 5
The Facultad de Medicina “San Fernando,” of the San Marcos University in Lima, Peru, where history professor Bianca Premo researches medical papers and documents about the “youngest mother in the world."

Historian awarded prestigious Guggenheim fellowship to study Peruvian girl who gave birth at 5

History professor Bianca Premo received a $50,000 grant for her book about a Peruvian girl known as the "youngest mother in the world"

May 7, 2021 at 12:00pm

History professor Bianca Premo has been named a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow and will receive $50,000 to research and publish her book, which examines the troubling case of a young Peruvian girl who gave birth at the age of 5 in 1939.

Her book, The Smallest Subject, will explore measures taken by the Peruvian government to control access to the girl and her case in the 1940s; her subsequent disappearance from the public as a curiosity; and her 21st-century reemergence as an internet sensation and national poster child of sexual abuse.

Premo's selection in this prestigious group of 184 artists, writers, scholars and scientists is the result of the Guggenheim Foundation’s rigorous and competitive peer-review process of approximately 3,000 applicants. Until now, her research focused on the effects of Spanish colonialism in Latin America, but more recently she began to investigate the 20th and 21st centuries.

“As a scholar, I am interested in exemplifying an ethical approach to an incredibly difficult topic and to a subject who over almost 80 years has been continually violated by people looking at her story in print and online. I plan to tell, not only her story, but multiple stories of those who have been interested in her through the changing lenses of ethical, political and medical points of view, as well as questions of reproductive rights,” Premo says. 

Premo admits she grapples with the question of whether and how we can ethically study those who have been hurt, marginalized or even hidden from history, including subjects who, like this Peruvian woman, reject our gaze. In her book, Premo plans to present an accessible, chronological narrative grounded in solid archival research and oral histories. As she traces the woman’s story, her analysis will range from national to transnational to relate how the body of a young girl encapsulates a century’s contradictory ethical standards around autonomy and in human subject research.

In addition, Premo strongly believes her project provides an opening to wrestle with the question of who owns the past, including the heartbreaking story of this Peruvian woman. Her research will reflect upon contemporary historical and literary attention to archival silences and vulnerabilities. Through the years, the story has received constant scrutiny in print and online — seeing the girl’s pregnancy is as easy as a Google search. But doubt about its veracity still abounds. That doubt is also the subject of this project.

At the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, Premo’s research has included law and the intersection of anthropology and history with the history of childhood. The latter is a relatively new field in Latin America. But now she is adding the history of medicine to this list.

“The fellowship provides me with support to expose a dilemma at the heart of modern scientific and humanistic research concerning marginalized human subjects, including children,” Premo says.

In addition to her support as a Guggenheim Fellow, she has also received support from two other highly competitive grants, the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) and the American Council of Learned Societies, for research and writing of this project.

Created in 1925 by Senator Simon and Olga Guggenheim in memory of their son John Simon Guggenheim, the Guggenheim Foundation has offered fellowships to exceptional individuals in pursuit of scholarship in any field of knowledge and creation in any art form, under the freest possible conditions. The great range of backgrounds, fields of study, and accomplishments of Guggenheim Fellows is a unique characteristic of the fellowship program.

Bianca Premo