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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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IV. The Fail


IV. THE FALL 1. War The Second World War did not break out unexpectedly. Warfare approached Ge­ neva and most of Europe in stages. The League watched as violence erupted in China, Ethiopia and Spain, immobilized by the inability and unwillingness of its main members to subordinate their contradictory national interests to League rules. Unfairly, eventually, the League was blamed for the failure of governments to live up to the commitments they had once made to shun warfare as a means of politics and to stand up against military aggression through concerted League measures. The developments had an ambivalent influence on the LNHO. On the one hand, being part of the League, it could not help being affected by its declining prestige. It also obviously suffered when shrinking financial contributions restricted its fi­ nancial basis and when Secretary General Avenol tried to salvage the League with political concessions. In January 1939, Avenol dismissed Rajchman, ostensibly for financial rea­ sons, but it was an open secret that his socialist sympathies, his outspoken opposi­ tion to the Munich accord and his activities in China made him unpalatable to vari­ ous governments, above all Japan, as well as to conservative Avenol himself.1 From a purely organizational point of view, Rajchman’s departure should not have been traumatic. The loss of numerous staff during the last years had been more serious for the amount of work that could be managed, and the Section had already sur­ vived a year without him. But removing Rajchman had...

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