Conference Report: The History of Health and Disease in Central and Eastern Europe since 1945

Over the course of two days (14-15 October), the Institute of National Memory and the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences sponsored a conference entitled “The History of Health and Disease in Central and Eastern Europe since 1945.” Although a substantial portion of participants hailed from various research centres and history departments across Poland, a sizeable contingent of foreign scholars were also present (including the CEEHM network’s own Sarah Marks, Agata Ignaciuk, Dora Vargha, and Mat Savelli). Held at the “History Stop” in Central Warsaw, participants discussed and debated the key trends (and interpretation of these trends) that marked health and healthcare across the former Marxist-Leninist world.

After some introductory remarks from one of the chief organizers, Evelina Szpak, the conference began with what proved to be a highly controversial and emotionally charged panel on birth control, abortion, and childcare. With the exception of Donald Filtzer’s work on Soviet infant mortality, the panel was largely concerned with contraception and abortion practices in post-WWII Poland. Agata Ignaciuk, Sylwia Kuzma-Markowska, and Katarzyna Jarkiewicz gave papers from differing perspectives, with each prompting substantial debate from the audience. Some audience members had trouble restraining their emotions, with one individual loudly cursing the “black devil of gender” for apparently misguiding research in the subject. The participants all did remarkably well under difficult circumstances to not respond to provocation and address questions seriously. Subsequent panels, while still producing debate, discussion, and direct criticism, were conducted in a calmer climate.

The conference took a very broad approach to health, with presentations on subjects ranging from specific diseases (cancer and polio were both discussed in multiple papers) to the broader determinants of health, including the economy and environment (air pollution, degradation of waterways, etc.). A number of other papers concentrated on the structure and organization of healthcare services, with special attention to issues of professional training and autonomy which covered Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union.

Despite concentrating on central and eastern Europe, many of the presenters incorporated global and transnational elements into their work. Anna Geltzer, for instance, discussed differences between American and Soviet ways of forming knowledge about anti-cancer drugs. Papers by Pavel Jaworski and Sylwia Szyc, meanwhile, made respective connections to Swedish aid agencies and orphans from North Korea.

The conference did a fine job illustrating the diversity of experience within the formerly Marxist-Leninist world. The papers demonstrated that the similarities in historical experience were, by and large, minimal and fairly superficial. It would be a stretch to describe “Communist health care” in any meaningful, transnational way. Instead, the work of the presenters underscored the need for historians to continue delving deeper into the divergences between East European countries and their connections with countries beyond the region.

The organizers should be thanked for putting on such a narrowly focused event as it allowed for discussions to dig deeper into key questions about medicine and health in this period. At typical meetings of medical historians, historians of central and east European medicine are often shoehorned into somewhat ill-fitting panels or left having to use most of their presentation explaining the context of the Communist world. While an understandable necessity, this conference nonetheless represented a welcome break from that experience. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the conference was simultaneously translated (quite adeptly) in Polish and English which allowed for participants (including the public) to engage in an equal level of speaking comfort.

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