As part of the Reluctant Internationalists research project, Dora Vargha is pursuing two lines of research: on the one hand, she is completing a book manuscript titled Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs: Governing polio in Cold War Hungary (1952-1963), which uses the series of polio epidemics in communist Hungary to investigate a global public health emergency in the midst of an international political crisis. In this book project, Dora argues that due to the particularities of polio, unique spaces of cooperation opened between antagonistic sides while Cold War concepts simultaneously influenced policies and practices of disease prevention and treatment.

Based on extensive archival material, medical and popular literature, hospital documents, memoirs and oral history interviews, Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs analyses 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, the book 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.

Nepszava 1959.12.15

Nepszava 1959.12.15

On the other hand, Dora has embarked on a new research project that continues to explore 20th century internationalism in epidemic prevention. More specifically, with this research she aims to contribute to the emerging global history of vaccine development and disease eradication strategies, broadening the geographical and temporal framework of her previous research on polio in Cold War Hungary. Through fine-grained analysis of experiments with the Cox, Koprowski and Sabin vaccines spanning four continents, this research explores the birth of an extensive network of global vaccine testing in the 1950s and 1960s. It will highlight the politically fraught way in which, the well-known story of claiming credit for the success of polio prevention, played out. Live poliovirus vaccine development, standardization and implementation, and the eventual choice of Salk and/or Sabin vaccines, reveal a process that amalgamated scientific competition with geopolitical concerns.

The most intensive decade of polio research coincided with the formative years of the WHO, which acted not only as a passive site for political gamesmanship, but as an active participant in shaping research. With this project, Dora aspires to provide a much-needed historical analysis of how polio prevention became a global project and what the role of international agencies, pharmaceutical companies, individual researchers and research subjects were in the process.

Overall, Dora’s research uses Eastern Europe as a departing point from which to develop broader geographical and temporal analyses of public health issues during the Cold War. While healthcare and medicine in post-communist societies have been widely studied, their pre-1989 history has been largely unexplored. She aims to fill this gap and show how health challenges in communist Eastern Europe — especially disease prevention and epidemic management — point to global questions, including who bears responsibility for the health of populations; what the limits are of that responsibility; and what parts should be played by states, international agencies and individuals, respectively, in protecting health and treating disease. Developments in medical knowledge and practice during the Cold War era have significantly shaped how global public health problems are tackled today; how welfare states organize their healthcare policies; and how medical research is conducted. Her research explores critical moments and processes characterizing half a century of medicine in a divided world.

Dora Vargha

Dora Vargha