Baby boom and epidemics: polio and pro-natalism in Hungary

Image from Féner, Tamás. Kor-Kép 1948-1955. Budapest: Magyar Távirati Iroda, 2007. p.269.

Image from Féner, Tamás. Kor-Kép 1948-1955. Budapest: Magyar Távirati Iroda, 2007. p.269.

This is one of my favorite images from  1950s Hungary. The national bus-manufacturing company Ikarus started producing strollers in 1954 to meet the demand of the rising number of infants. This was the Ratkó-era, the baby boom of the years when abortion was banned. In an era of post-war recuperation, at a time when competing ideologies claimed to have the exclusive answer to a bright future, the fledglings of a new generation received heightened attention. Seen as key subjects of national security and economy, children of the 1950s were considered to be particularly precious to states on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Between the years 1949 and 1960, 24.9 percent to 25.4 percent of Hungary’s population was under fifteen years old. This means that in the 1950s, the most endangered age group that polio threatened constituted a quarter of the country’s inhabitants. Polio’s most widely known attribute was that it was most prevalent among children, causing disability and, in the most severe cases, death.  Following the demographic shock of World War II, the specter of such destruction elevated the significance of the disease and placed it front and center in the state’s attention as polio epidemics became more frequent and more powerful throughout the decade.

As in many post-war societies, population politics became increasingly important in the wake of long years of devastating and bloody battles, deportations, genocide and starvation. In the course of the war, Hungary lost forty percent of its national wealth and over ten percent of its population, about one million people.[1] A severely damaged infrastructure and housing shortage posed challenges for the post-war governments, and demographic problems were further exacerbated by the reorganization of industry and labor in the early years of the Communist takeover.

While the number of live births increased in the years following the war and between 1947 and 1950, the population increase stabilized at a rate higher than preceding the war (2.1 percent),[2] a more significant growth in the future labor force was needed to make up for the lack of resources and to fulfill the industrial goals of the new communist state. To further boost population increase, in 1952 the Hungarian government enforced a strict pro-natalist policy. The Hungarian state was not alone in introducing the policy, other Eastern European peoples’ democracies also decided to ban the termination of pregnancies at this time.[3] While Hungary’s method was nowhere near as extreme as the infamous abortion ban of Ceaucescu’s Romania that was instituted over a decade later, the general idea and goal undergirding such pro-natalist policies was a shared attribute in the Eastern Bloc.

The Decree on the Further Development of Mother and Child Protection was a short-lived regulation, with significant effects; in the years between 1953 and 1955, the population increase more than doubled, to 5.1 percent.[4] This jump was achieved by limiting access to contraceptive methods, by financial incentives and propaganda. Women were severely punished for undergoing abortions as were doctors who performed them. Public show trials of abortionist doctors and midwives began in the autumn of 1952 and concluded with exceptionally severe sentences.[5] All pregnant women were required to register at state offices and the state imposed a special tax on childless citizens over twenty years of age. Propaganda efforts went as far as to urge childbearing for both among married couples and those out of wedlock, emphasized by the slogan of the movement: “To give birth is a duty for wives, and glory for maidens.”[6]

The pro-natalist policy was connected to the name of Anna Ratkó, Hungary’s welfare minister and later health minister, and the only female member of government in her time. The population policies of the early fifties were soon labelled Ratkó-era policies and the members of the baby boomer generation, born between 1952 and 1956 are until today called the Ratkó children.

From the beginning, he harsh anti-abortion decree met significant resistance from the citizens as well as from the state administration itself. Historian Andrea Pető has shown that those who did not want to have children found a way to have abortions independent of regulations.[7] The decree was enacted on February 8, 1953, and less than a month later, Joseph Stalin died on March 5. The new Imre Nagy government was not keen on enforcing the criminalization aspect of the decree, and certain parts of the regulation began to be revoked in the fall of the same year. From January 1, 1954, the government permitted abortions due to social considerations. The decree was finally fully revoked in 1956 to Soviet pressure.[8]

The brief period of increase in live births was soon followed by a sharp decline, after abortions became available and the childless tax was withdrawn. Statistics show that families simply rescheduled having children. There was no major increase in the number of children per families. Instead parents had the same number of children they would have had anyway, crammed into the few years while the decree was in effect.[9] All this did lead to more children in the 1950s. By the second half of the decade, there was a particularly large number of young citizens in the country. This coincided with the time when polio epidemics began claiming more lives and affected the physical health of more and more infants and children.

[1] Ignác Romsics, Magyarország Története a Xx. Században (Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 2001).

[2] Kéri, “Gyermekképünk Az Ötvenes Évek Első Felében “.

[3] Andrea Pető, “Women’s Rights in Stalinist Hungary: The Abortion Trials of 1952-1953,” Hungarian Studies Review XXIX, no. 1-2 (2002).

[4] Kéri, “Gyermekképünk Az Ötvenes Évek Első Felében “.

[5] Pető, “Women’s Rights in Stalinist Hungary: The Abortion Trials of 1952-1953.”p.53.

[6] Piroska Kocsis, “A Szövőszéktől a Miniszteri Bársonyszékig,” Archívnet 6, no. 4 (2006).

[7] Pető, “Women’s Rights in Stalinist Hungary: The Abortion Trials of 1952-1953.”p.52.

[8] Kocsis, “A Szövőszéktől a Miniszteri Bársonyszékig.”

[9] Klinger, “Magyarország Népesedése Az Elmúlt Negyven Évben.”p.47.


CFP: From Moral Treatment to Psychological Therapies: Histories of Psychotherapeutics from the York Retreat to the Present Day.


Centre for the History of Psychological Disciplines, UCL
11-13th October 2013

Whilst the history of psychiatry has become a well developed field of scholarship, there remain few examinations of psychotherapeutic treatments beyond histories of psychoanalytic approaches. This conference will bring together recent historical research on therapeutic treatments for mental distress and disorder, from the 18th century up to the present. It seeks to explore how such therapies were developed, their institutional and intellectual contexts, and the debates and controversies which may surround their use. ‘Psychotherapeutics’ is defined in its broadest terms, and is intended to include approaches that have been accepted by the medical or state establishments, as well as those practiced outside official institutional settings. Such modes of therapy could include moral treatment, mesmerism, mental healing, ‘talking’ therapies with a wide variety of theoretical bases, from psychoanalysis to cognitive therapy; as well as professional interventions such as those from psychiatric nursing, mental health social work, occupational therapy, play therapy and art therapy.

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

• The philosophical basis of therapies, such as existential, gestalt or behavioural approaches etc.
• Connections between the generation of therapeutic methods and their orginators’ biographies.
• Institutional, economic and political influences on the development of therapeutic practice.
• Psychotherapeutics in the health services.
• The professionalization and regulation of psychotherapeutic practice.
• The relationship between psychotherapeutic methods and other fields of knowledge, e.g. pedagogy, criminology, the neurosciences etc.
• Debates and controversies about psychotherapeutic approaches.
• The development of specific approaches for different age groups.
• Psychotherapeutic concepts in popular culture and the media.

Abstracts of up to 500 words for 20 minute papers should be sent to Sarah Marks at Proposals for themed panels with a maximum of four participants are also welcome. The deadline for individual papers and panel proposals is the 10th June 2013. Participants will be notified whether their papers have been accepted by 20th June 2013.

Society for the Social History of Medicine 2014 Conference

Disease, Health and the State

The Centre for Health, Medicine and Society: Past and Present, Oxford Brookes University and the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, University of Oxford

Call for Papers
Proposals that consider all topics relevant to the history of medicine broadly conceived are invited, but the 2014 committee encourages proposals for papers, sessions, and round-tables that examine, challenge, and refine the history of disease, health and the state. Suggested themes include local and global understandings of health, medicine, and governance; the consolidation, breakdown, or absence of state power in the midst of health and medical crises; and the experience of health and medical bureaucracies in the past.

Paper submissions should include a 250-word abstract and a short CV. Panel submissions should include three papers (each with a 250-word abstract and short CV), a chair, and a 100-word panel abstract. Round-table submissions should include the names of four participants (each with a short CV), a chair, and a 500-word abstract.

Call closes: 1 January 2014

Further details: