Polio Epidemics in Cold War Hungary, 1952-1963

Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs: Polio Epidemics in Cold War Hungary, 1952-1963

Dora Vargha


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).

Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs: Governing polio in the Cold War uses 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. The dissertation argues that despite the antagonistic international atmosphere of the 50s, spaces of transnational corporation between blocks emerged to tackle a common health crisis. At the same time, Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs shows 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 narrates the history of polio in Hungary at multiple registers. On an international level, it asks 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 investigates how post-war societies and nascent political systems dealt with an epidemic that worked against their modernist projects. On an individual level, it raises questions about definitions of treatment, authority of care and investigates the boundary between professional and lay knowledge.

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