Dr Dora Vargha
Lecturer in Medical Humanities
I received my PhD in History from Rutgers University and before joining Exeter I was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a postdoctoral fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. My work focuses on questions of global health and biomedical research in the Cold War era, using the locality of Eastern Europe as a starting point. My research is informed by gender history, history of technology, history of childhood and disability history and is in conversation with medical anthropology, sociological approaches and political science.
My interest spans from the politics of epidemic management to public health systems and access to therapeutics. I have recently completed a book manuscript titled Iron Curtain, Iron Lungs: Governing Polio in the Cold War. I have written on the global infrastructure of diphtheria antitoxin, the politics of vaccination in Eastern Europe, hospital care of disabled children in communist cotexts and about shifting epidemic narratives in historical analysis. I am now embarking on a new research project, Socialist Medicine: An Alternative Global Health History with a Wellcome Trust Seed Award.
My work has been awarded the J. Worth Estes Prize by the American Association for the History of Medicine and the Young Scholar Book Prize by the International Committee for the History of Technology. I am co-editor of the journal of Social History of Medicine, a collaborating member of The Reluctant Internationalists research group, and member of the Centre for the Study of Internationalism at Birkbeck, University of London.
My recently completed book manuscript, Polio Across the Iron Curtain: Hungary's Cold War with an Epidemic 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, I argue 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 the book 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.
My current project highlights the roles of international professional networks in shaping the agendas of international organizations such as the WHO. Through the story of experiments and campaigns with the live poliovirus vaccine spanning four continents, this research explores the roots of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Analyzing vaccine trials and vaccination campaigns from the Brazil through Singapore to Czechoslovakia and Poland, I investigate Cold War politics, post-colonial power struggles and commercial interests in the rivalry of competing scientists, and the rise of the Sabin vaccine as the ultimate technology of eradication.
My research on polio has brought me to think about the temporality and geography of disease more broadly. Polio as a disease seems to challenge conventional frameworks within which we think about when epidemics are happening and where public health policies, medical innovation and interventions take place. My research critically addresses these categories and dislocates geographies and narratives of disease and health. I am exploring ways to think about international and global public health outside of the framework of Geneva and US-based NGOs; and to question straightforward scripts of beginnings, crises and endings when it comes to disease.
A research project on the shaky beginnings of the World Health Organization, namely the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe leaving the agency within the first years of its existence examines some of these issues. Apart from exploring a crucial event in the history of global public health and of international organizations, the Eastern European story of being in and out of the WHO points to broader issues of international – and global – health in the Cold War era. Health played an important part in the unfolding Cold War in two, contradicting ways. Ideology, vaccines, disease and international relations were inextricably linked during the Cold War. Metaphors of medicine and health framed the era in terms of ‘containment’ and ‘infection’, and were often mobilised in diplomatic and economic interactions between the West and the communist East. At the same time, the proclaimed universality of health and the perceived neutrality of science provided spaces for cooperation across opposing sides. Both of these Cold War interpretations of disease and health proved to be fundamental in shaping post war international public health, as the 1950s shows, in surprisingly compatible ways.
I am member of The Reluctant Internationalists research group, led by Jessica Reinisch at Birkbeck, University of London. This Wellcome Trust-funded project studies the history of public health and international organizations, the movement of experts and knowledge in twentieth century Europe. Furthermore, I have been working on a collaborative project on access to global pharmaceuticals in the post-vaccination era with Jeremy Greene at Johns Hopkins University.
I am open to discussing research proposals on a wide range of subjects given my research expertise. I am especially happy to consider working with candidates in the medical humanities; history of medicine, science and technology; Cold War history; history of internationalism; women and gender history; disability history; and the history of Eastern Europe;.
External impact and engagement
I regularly contribute to news media on the topics of epidemics, disability and vaccination. My work has been published on the BBC, The Guardian and El País. As member of The Reluctant Internationalists research group, I am involved in providing training for secondary school teachers on Cold War History and participates in public history events such as historical walking tours in London. I have also done voluntary work for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group for basic human rights.
Contribution to discipline
I am co-editor of the journal Social History of Medicine, published by Oxford University Press. I have also been the curator of several online series, namely After the End of Disease on interdisciplinary collaborative website Somatosphere, and Europe in Crisis on The Reluctant Internationalists, co-edited with Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck).
"Windrush scandal: a historian on why destroying archives is never a good idea" The Conversation, April 24, 2018
Interview on programme "When Greeks Flew Kites", BBC Radio 4, Sunday February 4, 2018
Cold war conspiracies and suspect polio prevention. In guest feature Imagining Conspiracies: Science Under Suspicion edited by Alfred Moore on OpenDemocracy.net
“Los antivacunas y el pasado fascista de España”. (With David Bryan) El País, June 12, 2015. [in Spanish]
“Strangling Angel’ of Diphtheria Caught Spain off Guard – here’s how”. (With David Bryan) The Conversation, June 10, 2015.
“Outbreaks of disease and war: polio’s history with conflict” The Guardian, May 8, 2014
“How to get an iron lung in the midst of a revolution” Feature article in Hungarian news portal Index [in Hungarian]
“Hungary’s cold war with polio” feature article in Mosaic magazine by Penny Bailey. London: Wellcome Trust, April 15, 2014
“Mensch, die Machinen. Eine Berliner Tagung rückt Roboter ins Licht” Feuilleton, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10 December, 2013 [in German]
- HIH1027 - A History of Epidemics from the Plague to Zika
- HIH2001 - Doing History: Perspectives on Sources
- HIH2002 - Uses of the Past
- HIH2019A - Science, Technology and Medicine in the Cold War
- HIH3629 - Disease
- HISM017 - Critical Approaches to Medical Humanities
- HISM026 - Medicine Beyond Borders: History and Politics of International Health
- HISM027 - The Cold War: A Global History