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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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I. The Rise


Phase 1: Planning Article 24 of the League of Nations Covenant stipulated that there should “be placed under the direction of the League the international bureaux already estab­ lished by general treaties if the parties to such treaties consent.”1 The legally most plausible strategy to organize international health work would have been to incor­ porate the OIHP into Leagues structures and, in accordance with article 25, to co­ operate with Red Cross agencies for further health work. But nothing specified how such an arrangement should come about, and chances were that nothing at all would happen until some party was sufficiently interested to take the initiative. This party turned out to be the British government. In June 1919, British delegates achieved the informal but unanimous OIHP approval for their suggestion to place the OIHP “under the direction of the League of Nations in accordance with Article XXIV of the Covenant.”2 During the following months, British officials systemati­ cally worked towards that goal. One person, in particular, seized the opportunity of being at the right place at the right time. Dr. Edward John Steegmann, born 1867, had graduated in medicine and surgery and had acted as port medical officer of health at Newcastle and as house surgeon in several hospitals. Following his keen interest in public health he taught hygiene and served as secretary to the Royal Commission on Human and Animal Tuberculosis. For ten years, this Commission conducted large-scale government- supported investigations. Much to Steegmann’s disappointment, its work...

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