Posted by on November 16, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Professor Barry Doyle was awarded a grant by the University Research Fund to assess the current state of research into hospital services in interwar Central Europe and explore the archival resources available for future research. As the project gets under way he tells us about his recent visits to Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.

St Vincent de Paul Hospital, Budapest


I’ve been studying twentieth century hospitals for fifteen years – first in England and more recently France. This project builds on these foundations through an ambitious examination of institutional medical care in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland between the wars. I have a team of researchers – Balázs Szélinger (Hungary), Frank Grombir (Czechoslovakia) and Melissa Hibbard (Poland) – who will review the healthcare historiography of these nations and scope the archival sources available for future research. Ultimately we aim to hold a small workshop in Huddersfield bringing together researchers interested in our themes and produce an article assessing the current state of research.

Each of the researchers is currently in their respective countries identifying archival collections and I have been visiting them ‘in the field’, getting a feel for their early findings and meeting with a number of contacts in universities, archives and museums.

Semmelweis Medical History Library, Budapest

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My first stop was Budapest where I joined up with Balázs to discuss his work so far. There seems to be good published records from the interwar period with a wide range of material on funding, accommodation, patient numbers and medical staff but little new historiography. This was confirmed when we met Laszlo Magyar, the Deputy Director of the Semmelweis Medical History Library. Over tea in what was once the bedroom of a Hungarian actress(!) we discussed the current state of history of medicine in the country. The prognosis was not good, with many young scholars leaving for jobs elsewhere while the local historiography remains dominated by an insular culture of medical men writing about doctors or their local hospital. We also met up with Emese Lafferton from Central European University, who is currently working on psychiatry, science and eugenics in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Hungary. She was able to give us a further insight into the current trends in Hungarian medical history and pointers for using the archives.

The incredible Czech National Archives

national archives

The following week I was back at Stansted to fly to Prague where I met up with Frank, a former Huddersfield undergraduate who had arranged a packed programme. First stop was the Czech National Archives – an extraordinary building with an excellent, spacious reading room. We spent a happy few hours getting our hands dirty on files of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Health from the 1920s that had not been disturbed for decades. As Frank simultaneously translated the documents for me I provided a commentary on their usefulness and what they told us about the bigger picture.

Live action shot from inside the National Archives


Next was Prague’s tiny Medical Museum, housed in a courtyard opposite the austere Medical House erected in the 1930s. The collection had originally formed part of a medical school museum but had been disrupted by the war and the Communist era. After 1989 the collection was slowly reassembled and now offers a brief insight into the technological development of medicine since the early modern period. Some of the exhibits were rather disturbing, including a device for trepanning (drilling holes in the scull to release pressure) and a rather nasty umbrella like instrument for internal exploration! Finally we were joined by Dr Pavla Jirkova an archivist and historian of plague in early modern central Europe. She gave us further advice the archives of the city and suggestions for provincial studies.

Trepanning Instruments at the National Medical Museum


On the second day we talked to Professor Petr Svobodný, Director of the Archive of Charles University and the leading historian of modern Czech hospital history. Petr is an official partner of the project and he was able to share his extensive knowledge of the development of institutional care in the country, especially in Prague, and provide a number of pointers for archives to check and historians to approach.

At Charles University


My final journey was to Warsaw to meet with Melissa Hibbard, a US researcher who has been studying child health in interwar Poland. We met up with Dr Dobrochna Kałwa, an assistant professor at the University of Warsaw working on gender in twentieth century Poland. We had a very fruitful discussion about historiography, the current state of Polish medical history and possible academics and sources we might engage with. As in Hungary, Polish medical history remains rooted in the traditional approaches of personal and institutional biography.

The Polish National Archives


Unfortunately the Polish National Archives offered few records on hospital infrastructure. Central government was focused largely on public health, disease control and latterly the progressive development of the health centre, especially in rural areas. But as Melissa explained, Poland was a complex country made up of populations from all three major European empires. As a result ‘national’ policies were difficult in this period, leaving central government to rely on local administrations and voluntary organisations. Given the weakness of material in Warsaw, it is likely the Polish research will have a significant provincial element as we explore the archives in Krakow, Katovice and Lodz.

The heavily restored St Roch Hospital in Warsaw


The three trips have been fantastic for me, providing an insight into the similarities and differences in interwar healthcare in central Europe and the challenges posed by limited historiographical development and variable survival of records. It is likely local archives will provide the rich evidence to understand how the national systems operated in practice. These were highly complex systems with multiple providers of hospital care operating both within and outside the state. I can’t wait to meet up with Balázs, Frank and Melissa in February when they will come together in Huddersfield to write their article and present their findings to our workshop. Thanks to each of you for guiding me through your developing research findings and environment.

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