The Age of Questions

Guest Post by visiting fellow Holly Case, Brown University

For a month last summer (mid-May to mid-June, 2016), I had the privilege of joining the Reluctant Internationalists project group for research and interaction on themes of common interest. Among the project leader (Jessica Reinisch) and other members and guests (among them Heidi Tworek and Elidor Mehilli), the intellectual energy was remarkable. At several conferences, talks and workshops organised over the course of the short time I was there (on the Armenian genocide, the history of medicine, expertise, etc.) a broad range of interests was paired with impressive regional and temporal depth of knowledge. It is not surprising to me that so many of the project members have found jobs and received honours in the meantime.

Beyond the scholarly merit of the project, I was above all taken with the comradery within the group. The tenor of discussions was always productive and the atmosphere intense intellectually, but relaxed socially. It was truly a joy to think and work among such young scholars and enhances my faith in the future of historical inquiry that they are the faces of the next generation.

As for my own research, Britain was just where I needed to be this summer. Much of my time outside of Birkbeck was spent between the National Archives in Kew and the British Library. In both places I found a wealth of documents and pamphlets relating to the book project I am currently completing on “The Age of Questions,” tentatively subtitled “First Attempt at a History (in Aggregate) of the Eastern, Social, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions from Roughly 1800 to 1945, and Beyond.” The Reluctant Internationalists did me the honour of asking me to deliver the opening address for their new Centre for the Study of Internationalism, for which I spoke on my book project.

What was “The Age of Questions”? From a spattering of references to the American and Catholic questions in the mid-to-late eighteenth century, there followed an interrogative deluge in the nineteenth. Before long, publicists, scholars, statesmen, novelists, religious authorities, millers, doctors, and others competed to derive the best solutions to the Eastern, Belgian, woman, labour [worker], agrarian, and Jewish questions. These were folded into larger ones, like the European, nationality, and social questions, even as they competed for attention with countless smaller ones, like the Kansas, Macedonian, Schleswig-Holstein, and cotton questions. The most prominent figures put their pens to them: Alexis de Tocqueville, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Frederick Douglass, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Rosa Luxemburg, and Adolf Hitler, to name just a few. That questions were construed as problems is evident from another familiar formulation: the “definitive” or “final solution.” My book wonders: Was there a family resemblance between questions, or certain patterns that recurred or migrated across them? Have they disappeared, or are they still with us?

Being among the Reluctant Internationalists at Birkbeck helped me bring this project to completion. My archival and other findings at Kew and the BL filled the last of the holes in the analysis relating to the origin of the age, in which British politicians and publicists played the leading role. I left London just days before the Brexit vote. As such, I will always remember that month as an especially wonderful time before the general unravelling that has since ensued, and that shows all the more the unquestionable relevance of the Reluctant Internationalists project.

What Makes Health Special?

Guest Post by visiting fellow Heidi Tworek, University of British Columbia

I had the good fortune and great privilege of spending a month as a visiting fellow at the Reluctant Internationalists project earlier this year. As someone who has only recently started to work on the history of health, I found our discussions tremendously helpful for understanding how to think about health as an international phenomenon. One of the main recurring questions throughout our discussions revolved around the place of health in international interactions. What, if anything, made health different from other international concerns like labour, communications, war or trade?

Health stood for me as an area that bureaucrats often designated as “technical” to enable broader participation in health-related organisations. The designation of “technical” allowed experts to claim that health concerns existed beyond politics and could thus include non-members of international organisations.

In the interwar period, countries like Germany or the Soviet Union were critical players in the League of Nations Health Organisation. Germany continued to send out epidemiological bulletins over wireless after Hitler rescinded the country’s membership of the League in October 1933. The Rockefeller Foundation provided the majority of funding for the Health Organisation, even though the United States never joined the League. Similarly, David Brydan’s recent PhD thesis has shown how Spanish health officials remained deeply involved in the World Health Organisation although Spain was not allowed to join the United Nations until 1955. Disease crossed borders and did not discriminate between members and non-members of an international body. Despite political differences, nation-states often recognised that and cooperated accordingly.

Our discussions about how labels like “technical” enabled broader participation in health matters reminded me of my earlier work on the history of communications, where the label had performed a similar function. Calling communications standards “technical” enabled officials from the nineteenth centuries onwards to reach agreements about cross-border connections. A special issue that I co-edited for Journal of Policy History found that communications standards have succeeded historically when they regulated technical issues like frequencies, but not when they tried to regulate content.

If I apply that distinction back to the history of health, it implies that standardisation in health was likelier to occur when officials could designate something as “technical” (like causes of death) than when it required agreement on broader social issues. Social issues took health out of the purportedly technical into the very definitely political.

What made health different than communications was the very obvious stakes of life or death. In this sense, health was more like war. Health and war have long been linked metaphorically. We talk about “battling” disease or the “war on AIDS.” Conversely, health metaphors are tremendously virulent. We talk about the “health” of the economy or memes going “viral” online. These metaphors had real consequences. Robert Peckham’s work has shown, for example, how the metaphor of contagion in financial crises affected assessments of risk and responses to stock market crashes. Within the world of the military, some countries stopped supplying health data to the League of Nations around 1940 because they feared that the information could be misused by enemy nations for war planning.

Health, then, could be both as “technical” as communications standards and as “political” as war. By comparing health with other areas of internationalism, we gain a far more nuanced picture of how, when, and why cross-border interactions made reluctant experts into enthusiastic participants or vice versa.

Workshop Report – Writing ‘Outsiders’ into the History of International Public Health

outsiders-blogWorkshop Report – Writing “Outsiders” into the History of International Public Health, Birkbeck 27-28 October 2016

Earlier this term, Birkbeck played host to a two-day symposium examining the history of international public health. Writing “Outsiders” into the History of International Public Health brought together over twenty scholars from the UK, Europe, the US and Canada, setting out to examine what impact factoring in “outsiders” would make to the way historians write the history of international public health. In addition, the workshop sought to ask what close study of “outsiders” and the processes of marginalisation can tell us about the international system of public health – its rules (written and unwritten), its reach, and its commitment to inclusiveness?

cvw7zvrxeaa7zeqThe first panel addressed the theme of ‘giving and taking’ with Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck) examining the political geography of UNRRA’s donating and receiving countries, noting how the notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ acted as an important binary for relief work (podcast). Lion Murard (French National Centre for Scientific Research) then focused upon Greek and Eastern European international health during the inter-war period, including a focus on the Americanisation of European public health (podcast). Following this, Yitang Lin,  Thomas David and Davide Rodogno (University of Lausanne and University of Geneva) provided an introductory overview of The Rockefeller Fellows and Fellowship Programmes in Public Health database project, noting that fellows could often be both ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ simultaneously (podcast). All of the papers prompted discussion on the political dimensions of international health, including who was an ‘outsider’ in relation to medical staff within UNRRA and amongst the fellows of the Rockefeller programme (Panel discussion).

cvxwaw3xgaubsu9The second panel examined Soviet Russia during the inter-war years. Susan Gross-Solomon (Toronto) addressed Soviet public health schemes, arguing that Soviet public health was accepted unevenly outside of Russia throughout the whole period and thus Soviet medical professionals can be viewed as suffering from issues of both superiority and inferiority. She suggested the notion of ‘outsider’ or ‘insider’ was therefore perhaps too binary a distinction to make (podcast). Johanna Conterio (Birkbeck) then presented on socialist design in Black Sea resorts, exploring urban planning from a medical and public health perspective. Her paper examined Soviet models of prosperity and the way in which the Soviets presented this case of prosperity from planning in international settings, specifically in relation to the 1958 Congress of the International Architectural Union in Moscow (podcast). Sarah Marks (Birkbeck) followed, using psychiatry and mental health to explore Czechoslovakia’s ‘outsider’ status during the Cold War. She argued that whilst historiographically Czechoslovakia is an outsider, it can be viewed as an insider in many ways and her paper therefore advocated for the necessity of writing medicine and science back into the history of Czechoslovakia in order to understand its role within the broader Soviet sphere (podcast). All three papers prompted discussion on the extent of the performative aspect of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ as labels in relation to international gatherings and congresses, as well as to what extent the Soviets can be classified as having truly been ‘outsiders’ during this period (Panel discussion).

cvx-j0ww8aaknwwThe third panel of the day centred attention on the history of public health in the so-called ‘outsider’ states of Franco’s Spain, Nazi Germany, and Greece. David Brydan (Birkbeck) addressed Franco Spain’s relationship with the World Health Organisation during the immediate post-WWII period and the country’s isolation on the international stage. The paper noted that it is during this period that Spain can be most clearly viewed as an international outsider. Consequently, the paper examined the means through which Francoist Spain attempted to align itself internationally and its attempts to integrate into mainstream international health networks and organisations (podcast). Paul Weindling (Oxford Brookes) then spoke on Germany as an outsider in international public health under Nazism, addressing the topic of the Nazi vision to create a German-led European public health system and focusing on Nazi initiatives during the Second World War (podcast). Following this, Maria Zarifi (Hellenic Open University) presented on public health in the construction of Greece in the late nineteenth century. Her paper centred around the notion of modernity in relation to medical scientists in Greece and, in turn, how this went hand in hand with the development of the Greek state (podcast). The panel discussion that followed incorporated debate upon the centrality of public health to state building and the role of nationalism in international public health (Panel discussion).

cv3apftwgaambbeOn the second day, the final panel of the workshop addressed inclusion and exclusion in international health networks. Jessica Pearson (Macalester) presented on colonial outsiders in international public health, with specific focus on colonial France and its relations with the WHO. She argued that France’s refusal to allow the WHO to operate in its colonial territories was due to the broader context of the French perceiving the involvement of any international organisation in their African empire as a threat to French colonial sovereignty (podcast). Dora Vargha (Exeter) then spoke on determining who were ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ in the World Health Organisation. Her paper questioned if international health always occurs through international structures. Through examining Eastern European states, she argued that leaving the WHO did not result in isolation and an end to collaborations in the field of international public health (podcast). Following this, Ana Antic (Exeter) presented on the links between socialist Eastern Europe and the decolonising world. Her paper focused in particular upon examining alternative socialist internationalism through the prism of psychiatry and mental health, as evidenced through the case study of a group of Yugoslav psychiatrists in Guinea (podcast). After the three papers, discussion centred upon life beyond the WHO, both for colonial powers and for many socialist states. In addition, debate turned to the importance of distinguishing between global public health and international public health (Panel discussion).

The workshop concluded with a roundtable discussion addressing what difference adding outsiders makes to the way historians write the history of public health and the history of internationalism more broadly. In addition, discussions also examined what happens when we put public health into the history of international organisations and international relations, and vice versa. Similarly, debate revolved around questioning the adequacy of existing standard narratives of international public health and the ways in which historians can instead tell these narratives from below. A podcast of this roundtable discussion is available here.