Laboratories of Cooperation. Scientific and Medical Experts at the Conferences of International Organisations, 1936-1963
Laura Forster, Jessica Reinisch
This case study focuses on the conferences held by international governmental and non-governmental organisations of the interwar, wartime and post-war decades. It asks about the roles played by scientific and medical experts in advising on and shaping policy, constructing the organisations’ public image, and shaping the conference format.
Some of the most important and visible international organisations of the era included the International Labour Organisation (ILO, 1919-); branches of the League of Nations like its Health Organisation (LNHO, 1921-46); the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA, 1943-48); the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO, 1945-); and the World Health Organisation (WHO, 1946-). Each of these were homes to large numbers of scientific and medical experts, and each conducted regular international conferences. Their meetings varied in size, frequency and location, and fulfilled a range of purposes. In their own terms, the most important function was to provide space to agree on solutions to so-called ‘technical’ problems, requiring the application of scientific solutions by trained experts.
A particular focus will be the conferences held in the 1940s, which centred around the likely threats to international order in the wake of war and civil unrest – among them the threats of epidemics, of uncontrollable population movements, and of economic collapse of devastated countries. Scientific and medical experts were influential agents both in the definition of the nature of these threats and the formulation of responses. In practice, talk of ‘crises’ often became a catalyst for international collaboration, and conferences were forums where support for new forms of cooperation were tested, with consequences lasting well into the 1960s.
Several questions will advance this case study:
i. What roles did scientific and medical experts perform at these conferences, and with what results?
ii. Of what significance were the locations and formats of the conferences?
iii. How important were these organisations’ conferences to their programmes, mandates, self-representation and public perception?
iv. To what extent and by what means did these conferences give rise to a new ‘public sphere’ for internationalists of the post-war era, complete with their own language and cultural practices?
The official conference records (including preparatory papers, detailed minutes and speech transcripts) are extensive. These sources become instructive when supplemented with the material produced by individual conference participants, including their diaries, correspondence with colleagues, and personal accounts.