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Coming to Terms with World Health

The League of Nations Health Organisation 1921-1946

Iris Borowy

The League of Nations Health Organisation was the first international health organisation with a broad mandate and global responsibilities. It acted as a technical agency of the League of Nations, an institution designed to safeguard a new world order during the tense interwar period. The work of the Health Organisation had distinct political implications, although ostensibly it was concerned «merely» with health. Until 1946, it addressed a broad spectrum of issues, including public health data, various diseases, biological standardization and the reform of national health systems. The economic depression spurred its focus on social medicine, where it sought to identify minimum standards for living conditions, notably nutrition and housing, defined as essential for healthy lives. Attracting a group of innovative thinkers, the organization laid the groundwork for all following international health work, effective until today.


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As all authors know, the process of writing a book piles up ample debts, institutional, financial, intellectual and personal. Professor Wolf Gruner, who was already my supervisor during my Ph.D. thesis, continued to support me and helped find funding and a workplace at the Historical Institute at the University of Rostock, without which this study would not have been possible. The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) has generously financed the long period of research during the project. The archivists of several archives I visited in the course of the project provided competent and encouraging help. Above all, Ms. Bernardine Pejovic at the League of Nations Archive in Geneva became a constant companion of my searches. .In different forms and shapes, elements of texts in this book have already been published. Thus, parts of chapter III.3 have appeared as “Crisis as opportunity: International health work during the economic depression,” Dynamis 28 (2008), 29-51. Descriptions of the LNHO standardization program have been collected into “Serological and Biological Standardisation at the League of Nations Health Organisation, 1921 — 1939/’ in: Harmonising 20th Century drugs: Standards in pharmaceutical history, edited by Christian Bonah, Christophe Masutti and Anne Rasmussen, (Paris: Glyphe, 2009). Similarly, I portrayed the LNHO classification program in “Counting Death and Disease - Classification of Death and Disease in the Interwar Years, 1919 - 1939,” Continuity and Change, 18, 3 (2003) 457 - 481. In condensed form, elements of the LNHO efforts in social medicine have been discussed in “International Social Medicine between the War. Positioning...

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