Polio Epidemics in Cold War Hungary, 1952–63

Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs: Polio Epidemics in Cold War Hungary, 1952–63

Dora Vargha

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Winner of the costume contest at the Hungarian parliament. Postcard to Albert Sabin from János Jakus.
Sabin Archives. Poliomyelitis, International Cooperation. Box 12. File 3.5 (Hungary -- 1959-60).

This project used the series of polio epidemics in communist Hungary to understand the response to a global public health emergency in the midst of an international political crisis. It argued that despite the antagonistic international atmosphere of the 1950s, spaces of transnational corporation between blocks emerged to tackle a common health crisis. At the same time, Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs showed that epidemic concepts and policies were largely influenced by the very Cold War rhetorics that this medical and political cooperation transcended.

Based on extensive, original research, in national, international, and regional archives, medical and popular literature, hospital documents, memoirs, and oral history interviews, Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs narrated the history of polio in Hungary at multiple registers. On an international level, it asked how Cold War divisions can be re-evaluated when viewed through the lens of a disease that disregarded borders and ideologies. On a national level, it investigated how post-war societies and nascent political systems dealt with an epidemic that worked against their modernist projects. On an individual level, it raised questions about definitions of treatment, authority of care, and investigated the boundary between professional and lay knowledge.

The dissertation resulting from this project was awarded the ICOHTEC Young Scholar Book Prize 2014 by the International Committee for the History of Technology.

Vargha, D. (2014). When Polio Became Global: A Pre-History of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Recording of the talk given at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, October 16, 2014. Bloombsbury Media Cloud.

 

Vargha, D. (2014). Between East and West: Polio Vaccination Across the Iron Curtain in Cold War Hungary. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 88(2).