2008 lunchtime seminars launched with Wellcome Trust support
As 2008 drew to a close, history at the World Health Organization in Geneva ended on a high note. December saw the final seminar in the Global Health Histories series co-organized by WHO and the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, and the completion of a unique and remarkably successful initiative. The series has been seen as one of the most significant contributions to WHO's 60th anniversary activities - and it was also the longest-running.
It began in March, 2008 with a lecture examining the significance of the public health initiatives of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) - a predecessor to the WHO - in the aftermath of World War II. Dr Jessica Reinisch, of the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, discussed how public health emerged as a fundamental component of the survival and recovery of populations across Europe after 1945.
In April, the focus switched from the political climate in Europe to the natural climate in the West and Central Africa. In his paper, "Climate Change, Health and Disease in the Forests of Africa", Dr James Fairhead, professor of social anthropology at Sussex University, suggested that the effects of climate change on forests there have been underestimated, and discussed the implications, particularly the risk of epidemic diseases linked to vegetation.
From that exotic environment the switch in May was to the exotic world of Marcel Proust in fin de siècle France. In a vivid presentation, "Marcel Proust and the Global History of Asthma", Professor Mark Jackson, Director of the Centre for Medical History at the University of Essex, described how Proust (1871-1922) was plagued by asthma from childhood. His ill-health reinforced contemporary beliefs that asthma was an "aristocratic disease", largely confined to the elite. But Professor Jackson went on to show that asthma today is a disease of poverty and social deprivation.
A sunny June in Geneva felt the chill of Cold War politics. Professor Paul Weindling of Oxford Brookes University sought to reveal why in 1951 the Rockefeller Foundation abruptly closed down its International Health Division, which for almost 40 years had worked against malaria, yellow fever and other diseases. The political background and mutual suspicion of the superpowers raised wider health issues in the Cold War era.
Post-war research also featured in July, when Professor Daniel Pick, of Birkbeck College, presented "In Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Politics 1940-1950". He discussed how "denazification" became linked with questions of individual and collective mental health, referring to case studies of Hitler, Hess and other leading Nazis. Also in July, in a move from psychology to psychotherapy, Dr Sonu Shamdasani, of the Wellcome Trust Centre, reconstructed the rise of psychotherapy in medicine, neurology and psychology from the 19th century onwards.
September saw another outstanding presentation on a British perspective on international nursing organization in the 20th century. Professor Anne Crowther, of the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Glasgow, and Susan McGann, Archivist at the Royal College of Nursing Archive, Glasgow, explored the history of nursing since the days of Florence Nightingale to the College's relations with bodies such as the International Council of Nurses, UNRRA and WHO.
In a stimulating and thought-provoking lecture in October, Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya of the Wellcome Centre focused on the smallpox eradication projects in the South Asian sub-continent in the 1960s and 1970s. His presentation also considered lessons stemming from the history of smallpox eradication which could be of benefit to contemporary global health projects.
November brought fascinating insights into the life and times of global health consultant Brian Abel-Smith (1926-1996) and his work with WHO. Dr Sally Sheard, senior lecturer in the history of medicine at the University of Liverpool, and visiting professor at the London School of Economics, produced a detailed profile of the man who pioneered international comparisons on health services finance for WHO, visiting over 80 countries on behalf of the Organization. Abel-Smith was also senior adviser for several years to WHO Director-General Halfdan Mahler on the economic strategy for the Health for All programme.
The seminar series ended with a powerful presentation by Dr Edmund Ramsden, research fellow at the Centre for Medical History at the University of Exeter, that examined population density and social pathology based on ground-breaking experiments with laboratory rats in the 1960s. It raised issues related to the problems facing mankind in an increasingly over-populated and urbanized world.
From start to finish, the series won a lot of praise both within WHO and outside. The seminars were invariably well-attended, in some cases with standing-space only in the meeting room, which could accommodate 50-60 people. The lectures were very popular among staff, from senior professionals to young interns, and among visiting historians, researchers and students. A common view among staff was that the series provided intellectual refreshment, offered insights into a wide variety of unfamiliar topics and brought together colleagues who otherwise might not have met.
Among both the Wellcome Trust leadership and the speakers themselves, there were also plaudits at the end of the series. Dr Tony Woods, Head of Medicine, Society and History Grants, attended the final seminar and told the audience: "I think this has been an extremely valuable and successful initiative and I would like to see it go forward with our enthusiastic support in 2009."
Mark Jackson said: "The Global Health Histories Seminar series constitutes an exemplary initiative in the history of modern medicine. In particular it engages with, and constructively develops, two critical challenges facing historians of medicine: firstly, the need to develop a more sophisticated global history that is not only sensitive to regional differences but is also trans-national and comparative in its approach; and secondly, the drive to write a history of medicine that speaks more directly to scientists, clinicians, policy-makers and the public.
"The collaboration between the Wellcome Trust and WHO through this series of seminars delivers on both counts, drawing together academics from different disciplines and encouraging genuine intellectual cross-fertilization. Sanjoy Bhattacharya and Thomson Prentice are to be congratulated. I am deeply committed intellectually and politically to the kinds of initiatives that they have developed."
Wellcome Centre director Professor Hal Cook also attended the series and expressed his support for it. "History matters, as we all know from the news each day," he said. "Many aspects of the WHO take on significance only when its past aspirations, and its successes and failures, are compared to other developments."
Sanjoy Bhattacharya, who co-organized the series and attended every seminar said: "Historical and other social science studies are all about identifying the complex political, economic and social contexts underlying the preparation of policy goals and the implementation of projects. They, therefore, awaken us to the existence of variations in official and civilian attitudes and actions.
"When studied carefully, these can provide important insights into the many ways in which health programmes are interpreted by field workers and the people among whom they work. The history lectures at the WHO were important precisely because they stimulated us to consider many such complexities, providing information that can be of interest and use to those involved today in running public projects."
Daniel Pick said: "I was very glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this new collaboration between WHO and the Wellcome Trust. The series was carefully organised, well thought-out and smoothly run. I felt it was an enjoyable and facilitating context in which to present my work. I also found the responses of the audience interesting and helpful for my own continuing research on the topic I spoke about. I hope there will be similar occasions at which I can participate in future."
Sally Sheard said: "I reflect on the helpful diversity of comments from the audience at my seminar, and I gather from others. It was good to present to an audience that was not purely academic or historical, as it encouraged me to re-think the context of the material I delivered. I found the experience very useful. Talking to individuals afterwards, it seems also that WHO benefits from having a greater historical 'presence' - something for which Thomson and Sanjoy share the credit."
WHO historian Scorates Litsios, author of the recently published "Third Ten Years of the World Health Organization" said: "To achieve its goals, WHO promotes change on many fronts, all of which have long and complex histories. To be unaware of these histories is to risk being unaware of the major obstacles that have prevented change in the past. Mere repetition of what is desirable is not enough; strategies for change are needed that clearly reflect knowledge both of the factors in the past that have impeded progress and those efforts that have worked best to overcome those obstacles.
"The current interest within WHO and internationally in primary health care is not merely a celebration of 30 years since the Declaration of Alma-Ata, it is also a recognition that what was accomplished in the 1970s is still valid despite the widely different social and economic context of today. The history seminar series was an extremely valuable contribution to the history of global public health, as well as the history of the Organization itself."