To Hungary with Love

By David Bryan, reposted from The Reluctant Internationalists Blog 

Dora Vargha’s blog post on November 25th discussed the current financial difficulties faced by the Peto Institute in Budapest in the context of historical approaches to disability in Hungary. The Institute may be familiar to British readers who remember its rise to prominence in the late 1980s and its role in the debate around conductive education in the treatment of children with neurological disorders. The links between the UK and the Peto Institute provide a fascinating example of patient-led transnational history in Cold War Europe.

Princess Diana at the Peto Institute (1990)

The Institute first came to public attention following the broadcast of the BBC documentary Standing up for Joe in April 1986. The documentary followed the story of the Hadley family who had taken their severely disabled son to Budapest for treatment. The Institute pioneered the system of conductive education developed by its founder, Andras Peto, in the aftermath of the Second World War, which involved an intensive programme of physical and speech therapy under the supervision of “conductors” combined with very high expectations of the progress children could achieve.

The documentary, broadcast at prime time on BBC1 and watched by over five million people, caused a national stir. The BBC received 11,000 letters of enquiry, questions were asked in parliament, and a lobby group, the Foundation for Conductive Education, was set up to promote its use in the UK. The system was presented in the media as more holistic than the medicalised approach to treatment in the UK, and many parents were attracted by the positive expectations it had of potential progress against a perceived negativity and conservatism amongst UK medical staff. Over the following years UK families flocked to Budapest, often supported by national and local campaigns to raise funds for treatment. The Times estimated that over 600 UK children had visited the centre by 1990.

However, the treatment was not without controversy. Many within the British medical establishment felt that the claims for its success were overblown, and that the appearance of progress owed much to the fact that the Institute was selective in the cases it accepted. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy published a report in 1988 questioning many of the Institute’s claims, whilst the Spastics Society, initially wary of the programme, was picketed by the Foundation for Conductive Education over claims that its own conductive education schemes weren’t the real thing.

One of the most interesting features of the coverage of the Institute is its presentation in the context of the Cold War. Andrew Sutton, the Director for the Foundation for Conductive Education, described it as a ‘Len Deighton Cold War story, coming from a street near you’, with the media frequently describing families moving “beyond the iron curtain”. It certainly represents one of the most widespread and high profile instances of UK residents experiencing life in the Eastern Bloc prior to the end of communism. The BBC’s follow-up documentary to Standing up for Joe broadcast in 1987, which tracked the story of the British families who had followed in the Hadley’s footsteps, was entitled To Hungary with Love.

The Peto Institute also played a role in Anglo-Hungarian relations during the transition to democracy. In December 1989 the UK government announced £5 million of funding for the Institute’s new international centre to guarantee places for British children and pay for training of a group of British conductors. This funding was discussed as part of a wider package of support when Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth visited Margaret Thatcher on December 14th. In an article on the 6th January, The Times presented the funding as part of a range of government measures to form closer medical and scientific links with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. Following the first free elections in March 1990, Princess Diana made a high profile visit to the Institute as part of a four-day tour of Hungary where she presented an honorary OBE to its director, Dr Maria Hari.

The controversy around conductive education has never entirely gone away. In 1993 the government-commissioned Birmingham Project indicated that it was no more effective than comparable UK treatments, a claim that continues to be challenged by its adherents, whilst in 2003 Peter Randall from Kent attempted to sell his kidney on ebay to fund conductive education for his daughter. Although conductive education is now more widely available in the UK, British children continue to visit to Peto Institute for treatment.

Disability fears and fears of the disabled in Hungary

Recently the Hungarian government declined to grant a 500 million forint (approx. 2.25 million USD) emergency aid for the Pető Institute, an internationally renowned institution for training and providing conductive education in early development, primarily for children whose central nervous system has suffered damage. While the Institute denies claims to its dire financial situation and maintains that its relationship with the government is sound, journalists and opposition politicians call attention to the unclear legal situation of the Institute’s valuable real estate assets and opposition members speculate that the background of the denial of funds is the government’s desire to put their hands on the building sites and villas situated in the elegant Buda district.

The situation is as murky as can be, numbers are hard to come by to support or disprove any of the above claims. Most recently the online news portal HVG Online attempted to track down evidence to make sense of the Pető Institute story – without much success. My aim here is not to establish the “truth”, nor to unravel political agendas that may or may not influence decisions, publicity and processes in the Institute’s current condition. I am more interested in where (valid or perceived) threats to disability institutions’ real estate might come from and to place current disability politics in Hungary into a historical context. I firmly believe that a historical outlook on the long-term trajectories of past events can further our understanding of such controversies, and, therefore, may help in finding solutions.

Very much real threats of government officials trying to lay a claim to valuable real estate in the hands of institutions caring for disabled children are not without precedent. Over half a century ago, the rival of András Pető in physical disability care, László Lukács fought – and won – a battle against the communist government for the Heine-Medin Post-Treatment Hospital’s buildings. This hospital was established in a process covering months before, during and after the 1956 revolution, therefore its political legitimacy was more than problematic. A brief manuscript gives insight into the political maneuvering of its director, László Lukács, as he stated:

“The Health Minister proposed that the institution belong directly to the Ministry, but I could also choose to put it under the authority of the City of Budapest instead. I chose the latter. […] The chief doctor of the city was Dr. János Vikol, who had […] firmly supported the cause of the disabled. The other reason was that I didn’t trust the leaders of the Health Ministry, I feared [undoing], a hope of the 200 leading party members with the intention of getting back the distinguished treatment of their children.”

Although maintaining the new institution and its buildings after the revolution clearly required political skills, the fact that the doctor-director could choose which authority the institution should belong to, implies the great importance assigned to the cause, leaving Lukács with a certain political independence. Meanwhile, he also had to deal with the hostility of the political elite, who felt that the establishment of the hospital would curb their privileges in childcare.

The reason for this was that the Heine-Medin Hospital opened in five buildings that previously belonged to the Rákosi Mátyás kindergarten, a childcare home for privileged party officials in the prestigious district of the Rózsadomb in the Buda hills. The houses were for the most part nationalized residences of the economic and political elite of another era. The villas were scattered in the most sought-after part of the city, among green lawns with small patches of woods and swimming pools around them. It is no coincidence that an institution founded during the 1956 revolution was established in buildings with such history: this was a small, but obvious attack against the hated political elite.

Lukács’s cause was “helped” by the fact that severe polio epidemics were sweeping through the country year by year, causing fear in parents from the members of the Ministry Council to iron workers and leaving children paralyzed by the thousands. However, as soon as polio vaccination succeeded in putting a stop to epidemics in Hungary, Lukács soon lost the overall war for his institution and after merely six years of opening its doors to exclusive disability care, the hospital had to let go of its patients and its profile in specialized care.

Since then, disability had never been visible much in Hungary, nor have issues and rights of disability made it into mainstream public discourse. In the twentieth century, no glorious war with respected war veterans ignited social and political involvement in disability care, while in the last half-century, the physically and mentally disabled were removed from sight and society in the seclusion of often remote institutions or their homes. They were not compatible with communist ideals of physical strength, production and the triumph of the socialist man over the decadence of the West. While there has been significant change for the better since 1989, people with disability have generally continued their relative invisibility and disability issues have continued to occupy a very low status on the national agenda.

There is no emergency situation similar to polio epidemics in Hungary today to ensure the heightened attention to issues of disability. On the contrary, disability care and rights found themselves among the first targets of budget cuts in a society that is becoming less and less tolerant and more and more hostile towards disabled people. Recently, a whole village, with the leadership of its MP of the governing party raised national outcry against the plan of several mentally disabled people moving to their community in a program of de-institutionalization and independent living (the MP later officially retracted his point of view). It seems that today whole communities feel comfortable in voicing their concerns over “unsightly” people and arguing that it would be inappropriate to bring disabled into a community that is hostile towards the “crazies”. The seemingly haphazard reorganization of the educational system has been making integrated education challenging for pedagogues and parents alike.

It is into this historical heritage and current context that the controversial issue of the Pető Institute enters. Fears of bankruptcy, of real estate speculations and further budget cuts to disability support and care are not only the results of current government policies and of surfacing political agendas, nor are fears of and hostility towards the disabled in Hungary. Certain events and processes in the communist era of Hungary have very long and stubbornly lasting effects (like polio epidemics on disability issues) – and not only in ways that the governing party, Fidesz, who has posited its politics and profile against that era and its governments is aware of. Any solution to the controversy surrounding the Pető Institute and more broadly speaking, disability issues in Hungary would need to include thinking and acting with long-term historical  – and future – trajectories in mind.

‘Experimental Psychosis’ and LSD Research in Communist Czechoslovakia

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These images were produced by experimental subjects taking part in the ‘Experimental Psychosis’ project at the Prague Psychiatric Research Institute in the late 1950s and 1960s. The research programme, headed by psychiatrist Miloš Vojtěchovský, involved EEG monitoring and the analysis of creative graphic output (paintings, charcoal and ink drawings, among others) of healthy individuals under the influence of a variety of psychotropic drugs (including psilocybin, mescaline, adrenaline derivatives, dimethyl- and diethyltryptamine, and perhaps most significantly, LSD). These were then compared to the results of the same tests for experimental subjects with a diagnosis of schizophrenia during psychotic episodes, as a means to examine whether hallucinogens induced a form of ‘model psychosis’.

The subject who painted the faces above reported being unable to record the constantly changing colours quickly enough as the hallucination was happening, and so the resulting black and red images do not capture the full range detail of the images experienced.[i] The gradual distortion of the facial features is reminiscent of the progressive deterioration of Louis Wain’s ‘Kaleidescope Cats’, thought to be a result of his worsening mental illness.

Whilst ultimately the experimenters were doubtful as to whether the parallels between psychosis and drug-induced hallucinations went beyond mere analogy, they argued that inducing ‘model psychosis’ had a very important didactic function for mental health professionals, as it provided a new way for staff to directly experience symptoms of mental illness that they had hitherto only been able to observe in their patients. They hoped that such phenomenological experiences could be integrated into the training of psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses, to enable a more humane therapeutic relationship.[ii]

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This illustration is accompanied by an explanatory note exploring the word-game that the experimental subject was engaging in during their LSD-induced experience. The comical canine cariacature with its exaggerated genitals is ‘Psychosexopes’, which can be roughly translated into English as ‘Psychosexdog’ It is a visual representation of the experimental subject’s chain of thoughts, which pun on the fact that the plural of the Czech word for pes, meaning dog, is psy. An annotation beneath the image reads,  ‘psyche – higher nervous activity – experiments with dogs, sexuality – psychoanalysis’.[iii]

According to officially endorsed ideology under Communism, psychic phenomena were reducible to the products of ‘higher nervous activity’ in the Pavlovian sense. Experimental work in the Pavlovian tradition often made use of experiments with dogs (psy). The term ‘psy, in tandem with this particular dog’s obvious sexuality, in turn brings the subject’s thoughts back to psychoanalysis. Given that psychoanalysis was technically regarded as a pseudoscience by the regime – with scientists having to have special permission to access the works of Freud which were kept in separate rooms in state libraries – the amalgamation of Pavlov with Freud in this wordplay signifies the bringing together of two ideological opposites, and has a subversive element.

Although the identity of the experimental subject remains undisclosed by the authors of the book, it is perhaps worth noting that at least one of the project’s collaborators, Stanislav Grof, was a trained psychoanalyst, and went on to use LSD to support therapeutic sessions which did draw explicitly from psychoanalytic models. The fact that such work was being carried out during the 1960s in Czechoslovakia is testament to the possibilities for theoretical autonomy in medical research at the time. In spite of the Party’s disapproval of psychoanalysis, the experimental psychosis researchers were, in practice, able to continue to pursue their own interpretations within experimental contexts without much direct state regulation, even before the Prague Spring Reforms of 1968.


[i] See Jiří Roubíček Experimentální psychosy (Prague: Státní zdravotnické nakladatelství, 1961) pp. 216-219

[ii] Ibid., p. 260

[iii] Ibid., p. 194

Further Reading:

Stanislav Grof Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (New York: Viking Press, 1975)