University of Exeter historian’s work on epidemics honoured by AHRC Medical Humanities Awards

Dr Dora Vargha

Pioneering research by a University of Exeter historian on the impact and management of epidemics has been honoured at this year’s AHRC Medical Humanities Awards.

Dr Dora Vargha’s work on the Cold War politics of polio epidemics in the 1950s – a crucial moment in global health history – is contributing to the understanding of epidemics and informing current management policies.

In her book, Polio Across the Iron Curtain, Dr Vargha investigates the politics of vaccine development, use and failure; treatment regimens and post-war disability; and scientific collaboration and mistrust.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council Medical Humanities Awards, held in association with Wellcome, recognise research which has transformed understanding of contemporary issues such as the spread of infectious disease, mental illness and obesity. Dr Vargha was awarded the “Best International Research” award.

Work honoured this year has challenged approaches to medical science and informed health policy in the UK and internationally. The winning researchers have conducted research into how the stigma surrounding obesity actively contributes to the obesity crisis and into innovative art therapy techniques.

The Medical Humanities Awards recognise people and projects which have transformed people’s quality of life, health and wellbeing through arts and humanities research.

The judges said they were impressed with how Dr Vargha’s timely research into the history of epidemics and their impact on the political landscape has helped inform current policies on epidemic management.

Professor Edward Harcourt, Director of Research, Strategy and Innovation at AHRC, said: “The projects recognised by these awards demonstrate that medical humanities research has both academic and practical value with many projects already improving people’s long-term quality of life.”

Dr Dan O’Connor, Head of Humanities & Social Science at Wellcome, said: “Medical humanities research contributes invaluable, human-centred insights into our experiences of health and illness.

“From how the history of epidemics contributes to modern policies, to linking the intersections of social stigma and health inequalities, the diversity of these winning projects are astonishing examples of the importance of understanding health in its social and cultural contexts.

“Discovery research in the medical humanities research informs our understanding on the very essence of what it means to be human and Wellcome proudly supports a range of research projects that provide these fresh insights.

“The growing complexity of healthcare and wellbeing across a range of settings shows this research is as important now as it has ever been.”

Dr Vargha’s book also won the 2019 EAHMH Book Prize and she has written articles on the topic in The Lancet and the Boston Review. She has also held a policy workshop at the Wellcome Trust in 2019 co-organized with colleagues from Oxford and the University of Edinburgh, where the researchers began developing guideline suggestions for international organisations in epidemic management.

This year Dr Vargha contributed to the work of the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific Office, as a member of the Foresight Thinktank on the History of Pandemics. The associated report, History as a Partner in Public Health, will be published later this year.

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