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Archaeology and History

Photo of Professor Dora Vargha

Professor Dora Vargha

Professor of History and Medical Humanities


01392 724808


I am a historian of medicine, science and technology, with expertise in the history of epidemics, the politics of health, and Cold War history. My work focuses on questions of global health and biomedical research in the Cold War era, using the locality of Eastern Europe as a starting point. My research is informed by gender history, history of childhood and disability history, and is in conversation with medical anthropology, sociological approaches and political science. 

I received my PhD in History from Rutgers University and before joining Exeter I was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a postdoctoral fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. I am currently based jointly at the University of Exeter and Humboldt University in Berlin, and I have returned as a visiting researcher to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. I am co-editor of the book series Epidemic Histories at Johns Hopkins University Press and currently President of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health. 

My interest spans from the politics of epidemic management to public health systems and access to therapeutics. My book, Polio Across the Iron Curtain: Hungary's Cold War with an Epidemic was published open access in 2018 with Cambridge University Press. I have written on the global infrastructure of diphtheria antitoxin, the politics of vaccination in Eastern Europe, hospital care of disabled children in communist cotexts and about shifting epidemic narratives in historical analysis

With colleagues from the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh and Johns Hopkins University I have been working on the question of epidemic temporalities and what happens after disease ends. Placing epidemic narratives in focus, this project is an interdisciplinary collaboration to interrogate epidemic endings, think past the conventional narrative and neat epidemic bell-curves to identify, collect and disseminate different understandings of disease impacts.

Currently I am leading two, interconnected research projects exploring alternative approaches to the history of global health. Socialist Medicine: An Alternative Global Health History, funded by an ERC Starting Grant investigates the role of the socialist world in global health structures and networks, while the collaborative project funded by the Wellcome Trust, Connecting Three Worlds, together with Sarah Marks (Birkbeck) and Edna Suarez-Diaz (UNAM, Mexico) explores socialist networks in public health, technical assistance programs and mental health in the post-WWII era. 

I am also co-Investigator on the 8-year interdisciplinary research project 'After the End: Lived experiences and aftermaths of diseases, disasters and drugs in global health', in collaboration with colleagues from Oxford University, University of Warwick, Liverpool John Moores University, University of Sierra Leone, Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Anis Instituto de Bioética in Brazil. 

My work has been awarded the 2020 Medical Humanities Award for Best International Research by the AHRC and Wellcome Trust, the 2019 Book Prize of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, the J. Worth Estes Prize by the American Association for the History of Medicine in 2016, and the Young Scholar Book Prize by the International Committee for the History of Technology in 2014.

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My recent book, Polio Across the Iron Curtain: Hungary's Cold War with an Epidemic uses the series of polio epidemics in communist Hungary to investigate a global public health emergency in the midst of an international political crisis. In this book, I argue that due to the particularities of polio, unique spaces of cooperation opened between antagonistic sides while Cold War concepts simultaneously influenced policies and practices of disease prevention and treatment. Based on extensive archival material, medical and popular literature, hospital documents, memoirs and oral history interviews the book analyses the history of polio in Hungary at multiple registers. On an international level, it asks how Cold War divisions can be re-evaluated when viewed through the lens of a disease that disregarded borders and ideologies. On a national level, the book investigates how post-war societies and nascent political systems dealt with an epidemic that worked against their modernist projects. On an individual level, it raises questions about definitions of treatment, authority of care and investigates the boundary between professional and lay knowledge.

As a further step, I have been examining the roles of international professional networks in shaping the agendas of international organizations such as the WHO. Through the story of experiments and campaigns with the live poliovirus vaccine spanning four continents, this research explores the roots of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Analyzing vaccine trials and vaccination campaigns from the Brazil through Singapore to Czechoslovakia and Poland, I investigate Cold War politics, post-colonial power struggles and commercial interests in the rivalry of competing scientists, and the rise of the Sabin vaccine as the ultimate technology of eradication. 

My research on polio has brought me to think about the temporality and geography of disease more broadly. Polio as a disease seems to challenge conventional frameworks within which we think about when epidemics are happening and where public health policies, medical innovation and interventions take place. My current work, After the End of Disease critically addresses these categories and dislocates geographies and narratives of disease and health. I am exploring ways to think about international and global public health outside of the framework of Geneva and US-based NGOs; and to question straightforward scripts of beginnings, crises and endings when it comes to disease. 

My research avenue, Socialist Medicine pioneers a new history of global health that, for the first time, incorporates the socialist world - a constellation of countries in a fluctuating political, economic and military nexus distinct from the capitalist West. It identifies the particular health cultures produced by socialism (in all its variety) and explores the impact of socialist internationalism in co-producing global health in the 20th century. The proposed project pioneers a new history that will not only transform our knowledge of historical processes, but will further our understanding of ideas, practices and processes that current global health structures have been built on. This research is funded by The Wellcome Trust and the European Research Council.   

Research collaborations

I am member of the Centre for the Study of Internationalism at Birkbeck, University of London and since 2021 I am visiting researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and organized the Institute's Colloquium in 2022-23. 

I am part of two collaborative research projects and a collaborative research platform. Along with Edna Suarez-Diaz and Sarah Marks I lead 'Connecting Three Worlds: socialism, medicine and global health after WWII, funded by a Wellcome Collaborative Award. I am co-investigator on the interdisciplinary research project 'After the end: Lived experiences and aftermaths of Diseases, Disasters and Drugs in global health', funded by a Wellcome Discovery Award. Together with Lara Keuck (University of Bielefeld/MPIWG) and Birgit Nemec (Charité) I co-lead the research platform 'Health Beyond Medicine'. 

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I am open to discussing research proposals on a wide range of subjects given my research expertise. I am especially happy to consider working with candidates in the medical humanities; history of medicine, science and technology;  Cold War history; history of internationalism; women and gender history; disability history; and the history of Eastern Europe. 

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Copyright Notice: Any articles made available for download are for personal use only. Any other use requires prior permission of the author and the copyright holder.

| 2023 | 2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2005 |



  • Arnold D, Gomez PF, John M, Leung AKC, Ngalamulume K, Vargha D. (2022) The Pandemic and History, AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW, volume 127, no. 3, pages 1340-1378, DOI:10.1093/ahr/rhac337. [PDF]






  • Vargha D. (2017) Vaccination and the communist state: Polio in Eastern Europe, The politics of vaccination: A global history, 77-98.
  • Vargha D. (2017) Vaccination and the communist state, The politics of vaccination. A global history, University of Manchester Press.


  • Vargha D. (2016) After the End of Disease: Rethinking the Epidemic Narrative.
  • Antic A, Conterio J, Vargha D. (2016) Beyond Liberal Internationalism, Contemporary European History, volume 25, no. 2, pages 359-371, DOI:10.1017/S0960777316000114.


  • Vargha D, Brydan D. (2015) Los antivacunas y el pasado fascista de España, El País.



  • Vargha D. (2005) The Medicalization of Sin. The body of the prostitute in 19th century Hungarian medical discourse, Budapesti Negyed (Budapest Quarterly), volume 47-48.

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External impact and engagement

I regularly contribute to news media on the topics of epidemics, disability and vaccination. My work has been featured in The New York Times, the Financial Times, the BBC, The Guardian and El País.

In 2020 I contributed to the work of the World Health Organization Western Pacific office as member of their foresight think tank on the history of pandemics. 

As member of The Reluctant Internationalists research group at Birkbeck, I was involved in providing training material for secondary school teachers on Cold War History and participated in public history events such as historical walking tours in London.

I am a long-standing supporter of, and have done voluntary work for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group for basic human rights. 

Contribution to discipline

I am co-editor of the book series Epidemic Histories, published by Johns Hopkins University Press and on the advisory editorial board of the journals Bulletin of the History of Medicine and Journal of the History of Knowledge. I was co-editor of the journal Social History of Medicine between 2017-2021. 

I am currently President of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, and current chair of the Committee of Publications of the History of Science Society. 


News Media (authored)

COVID: there’s a strong current of pandemic revisionism in the mainstream media, and it’s dangerous (co-authored with Lukas Engelmann) The Conversation, February 16, 2024

How epidemics end (Co-authored with Jeremy Greene) Boston Review, July 2, 2020

Gefärliche Jahre. (Co-authored with Tobias Rupprecht) Süddeutsche Zeitung, June 24, 2019

Windrush Scandal: a historian on why destroying archives is never a good idea. The Conversation, April 24, 2018

Cold war conspiracies and suspect polio prevention. In guest feature Imagining Conspiracies: Science Under Suspicion edited by Alfred Moore on September 16, 2015

“Los antivacunas y el pasado fascista de España”. (Co-authored with David Bryan) El País, June 12, 2015.

“Strangling Angel’ of Diphtheria Caught Spain off Guard – here’s how”. (co-authored with David Bryan) The Conversation, June 10, 2015.

“Outbreaks of disease and war: polio’s history with conflict” The Guardian, May 8, 2014

Interviews and Feature Articles

How do Pandemics End? The Inquiry, BBC World Service, May 19, 2022

Um mar de interrogações depois das epidemias. Publico, January 23, 2022 (Portugal)

Mikor beszélhetünk szocialista egészségügyről, és tulajdonképpen mit is értünk alatta? Kettős Mérce, January 11, 2022 (Hungary)

How Pandemics End Washington Post video interview, January 10, 2022 (US)

Tartós Hullám HVG, December 12, 2021 (Hungary)

From plague to polio: how do pandemics end? Financial Times, March 12, 2021 (UK)

Tıp Tarihçisi Vargha: Pandemiler özgürlük sorununu açığa çıkardı. Birgün, March 6, 2021 (Turkey)

Wie bestimmen wir das Ende einer Epidemie? Tagebuch, March 1, 2021 (Austria)

Channel 4 News, May 28, 2020 (UK)

The Race for a Cure: Making Britain Safe. The Tonight Programme, ITV, May 21, 2020 (UK)

“A járványok felerősítik a meglévő feszültségeket Feature interview in, May 20, 2020 (Hungary)

Interview on historical sources and epidemics, ITV Westcountry, May 20, 2020 (UK)

Live interview on the end of COVID-19, CNN newsroom, May 11, 2020 (US)

“How Pandemics End” The New York Times, May 10, 2020 (US)

„Bizalomra és összefogásra van szükség a járvány megállításához” Feature interview in, April 23, 2020 (Hungary)

Resist. Episode of historical program ‘When Greeks Flew Kites’. Interview on the history of polio on BBC Radio 4, February 4, 2018 (UK)

 “How to get an iron lung in the midst of a revolution” Feature article in Hungarian news portal Index (Hungary)

 “Hungary’s cold war with polio” feature article in Mosaic magazine by Penny Bailey. London: Wellcome Trust, April 15, 2014 (UK)

also appeared in:

New Statesman


Pacific Standard Magazine

Readers Digest Hungary, October, 2014

“Mensch, die Maschinen. Eine Berliner Tagung rückt Roboter ins Licht” Feuilleton, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10 December, 2013 (Germany)

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