In the midst of a pandemic, questions of global health have never been more pressing. We have all experienced up close the difficult dilemmas of squaring medical expertise with other political concerns; we are all participants in a heated debate about the balance between national, regional and global measures. Perhaps we have also felt how little agency we really have, in the face of a global health crisis; while at the same time witnessing how the choices, advice and scientific input of singular women and men can change the trajectory of the virus – can be a matter of life and death.
This GloBio Seminar will investigate global health governance from a biographical perspective. Though the global pandemic has pulled the curtain back for everyone to see, those familiar with the field know that the description above applies to almost all global health issues, and that the history of how health work became internationalized dates back well over a century. Sally Sheard will introduce and discuss the role of ‘the expert’ in global health history. This will be followed by two case studies digging into two key international health officials. Sunniva Engh will ask whether and how the radical health administrator and international health advocate Karl Evang’s (1902-1981) firm commitment to social medicine was affected by his experience with early WHO work, and by his encounter with India’s medical profession and health administration, as vice chair of a 1953 WHO-mission to India. Niels Brimnes will ask if and in what ways the ‘radical’ views on health developed by Halfdan Mahler – Director-General of WHO between 1973 and 1988 and ardent advocate of the doctrine primary health care – was formed by or connected to his work as a young TB-doctor in India between 1951 and 1961. Last, Sanjoy Bhattacharya will conclude the seminar with a broader reflection upon global health governance and India in the postwar decades.
Through these four prisms, our aim is to stimulate debate both on the subject matter of global health governance and on how biographies can be used as an approach to investigate these issues historically.