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February 8: Learn about what international public health was like before the World Health Organization


Theodore Brown, the country's leading historian of public health, helps us better understand the challenges of global public health in the 21st century by taking us back half a century

When: Thursday February 8, 4:00-5:00 PM
Where: IU Medical School Medical Science Library, Room IB 301 & 302

Theodore M. Brown, Professor in the Departments of History and of Community and Preventive Medicine at the University of Rochester, will talk about “International Public Health: Before the World Health Organization.” The History of the WHO cannot be fully understood without appreciating the often tangled background of international public health that existed in the years before the Second World War. When WHO came into being, it inherited a legacy that included many tensions, contests over organizational territory, and conflicts over priorities. This presentation will evaluate the key developments in international health in the period leading up to the chartering of WHO, and will pay particular attention to the Office Internationale d'Hygiene Publique and the League of Nations Health Organization.
Dr. Brown brings an important perspective, expressed in his 2004 article "A Role for Public Health History":

First, that international public health efforts are deeply influenced and critically shaped by their political context. Programs cannot be created in a vacuum or applied in isolation. They are of this world and, like it, they constantly change and thus need to be frequently renegotiated. Second, the culture of international health organizations must be acknowledged in order to understand what priorities will emerge at any particular time and which will survive intra- and interagency competition. Programmatic ideas are always contested and rise and fall with shifting political alliances.

Third, ideas are applied in a world governed by administrative and bureaucratic realities. The translation of plans into actual programs requires a great deal of persistence and negotiating skill to make them real and keep them functioning. Fourth, international health initiatives must reckon with deep-seated historical and cultural traditions, local realities, and global forces. All play roles in the success and failure of public health activities, and no success is likely to last forever, especially when the world changes in dramatic ways. Fifth, top-down initiatives cannot expect to succeed without real bottom-up support. Because people at the local level understand how programs need to function to address their particular needs, there can be no simple formula for international public health success. A single agenda or set of priorities cannot suit all circumstances.

Clearly, there is an important role for history in global public health. Studying history carefully and generalizing from its particulars may not necessarily help us avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, but by distilling the lessons of history, we can certainly learn more clearly where we have been and, as a consequence, become more aware of where we are.

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