A Forgotten Episode of International Health

In this month’s post on UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland‘s blog, Dr Dora Vargha, University of Exeter, uncovers the neglected role of the Socialist Bloc and Eastern Europe in the history international public health. Dora argues that rectifying this omission is essential to capture a complete picture of international and global public health in the crucial era following the postwar settlement. 

The Establishment of the World Health Organization

The establishment of the World Health Organization is no doubt a crucial and fundamental moment in the history of international (and global) public health. The leadership, ideas and early decades in the unfolding Cold War can be assembled through biographies of Director-Generals, the Organizations own chronicle of its first decades and through histories of malaria eradication. However, certain equally important aspects of the early years of the WHO, like the sudden exit of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe shortly after the establishment of the organization merit little more than a mention in these histories.

The Socialist Bloc and the Missing History of the WHO

This omission from the historiography is not entirely surprising. The Socialist Bloc, and Eastern Europe in general has been, until recently, missing from international health narratives on the whole, despite foundational Eastern European figures in its history such as Andrija Stampar, key member of the League of Nations Health Organization (LNHO) and president of the First World Health Assembly, and Ludwik Rajchman, director of the LNHO and founder of UNICEF. Often seen as a politically homogeneous area under complete Soviet control in the postwar era, Eastern European countries have not been considered to have agency in international health during the Cold War.
But the history of international and global health has a lot to gain by including the Socialist Bloc in the picture. This unexplored history points to questions whether international health always happens within organizational structures of international agencies and through philanthropic entities such as the Rockefeller Foundation; what the stakes were in this Cold War divide in the formative years of the WHO; and the extent to which we can talk about a unified response within the Socialist Bloc to diplomatic and public health challenges in their time outside of the organization.

Continue reading the original blog post here.

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