Those following along on Twitter will know that I've been in Geneva since Sunday 8th May. I'm working on the final stages of a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust funded project on the history and politics of disease eradication. This builds upon my earlier work on polio eradication, which was published in Geoforum earlier this year. In this particular project, I am interested in how the "pursuit of zero" is conceptualised, marshalled and evidenced in historical eradication campaigns. Last August, I returned to the Rockefeller Archive Center to examine the early twentieth-century campaigns against hookworm and yellow fever. In my second archive stint, I have been in the WHO archives this week looking at material relating to the ultimately successful "eradication" of smallpox (scare quotes used as samples do still exist in Russian and US bioweapons facilities).
The rather imposing WHO headquarters, Geneva. The archives are in the basement.
This time away from London has been very helpful in giving me some space to think through comparisons and contrasts that can be made between the work of Rockefeller and WHO (here I owe a debt to Anne-Emmanuelle Birn's work). I am reminded again of the significance of early health efforts in spreading the message of development and modernisation, and it is interesting to see similar sentiments expressed in the diaries of Rockefeller and WHO field operatives (some, as I have discovered, worked for both agencies). The plan is to write two larger papers on each of the organisations and a third piece that begins to craft a genealogy of eradication (something more conceptual than Nancy Leys Stepan's historical overview of the influential eradicationalist Fred Soper). I have already begun the first piece on Rockefeller (I am particularly interested in their hookworm work in the plantation economies of Sri Lanka), and I plan to spend some time this summer trawling through the >20GB of WHO material that I have collected this week. Later in the summer, I hope to begin putting together a larger grant application on the intertwining problems of eradication, elimination and emergence.
So what did I actually do? On Monday, I had the privilege of sharing some of my preliminary thoughts from Rockefeller with a team of my former colleagues at WHO, about 50 in all. My title was "Let us spray" - one of many awful puns that I hope will see the light of day as paper titles in the not too distant future! I was primarily making the conceptual case for a history of eradication, using (futile) contemporary efforts to eliminate Zika-carrying mosquitos as a way into a broader discussion about the hope and hype of efforts at eradication. I was able to explore some of the similarities and differences between Zika and yellow fever campaigns, while also getting some very interesting insights from the audience into contemporary containment efforts and the use of "medical countermeasures" in the fight against infectious disease. Lots to take away and think through, for sure.
"Let us spray": opening slide of my presentation on Monday (Credit: Matthew Twombly/NPR)
My time in the WHO archives was also interesting in comparing the different organisations' approaches to archival material. The Rockefeller archive is situated in a palatial mansion on the outskirts of New York City, and their large team of knowledgeable staff marshal the boxes of primarily paper materials from archive shelf to desk. They also (now) have an excellent electronic finding aid that makes searching materials much more efficient - each box, for instance, has a lengthy itemised description of its contents. In contrast, the WHO team is much smaller - but likewise excellent - based in the basement of WHO headquarters, and one gets the feeling that the on-going nature of their work (every day new e-materials are made by WHO staff globally) places significant pressures on them. No doubt, academic researchers making requests for material do not help the matter either! Certain elements of their archive are entirely digitised, but the finding aids are still only paper-based (leading to something of an impasse in requesting material in advance). Luckily for me, the Smallpox Eradication Programme (SEP) is entirely digitised and I was able to take copies of the files but only after having discussed fair usage in Geneva. The files are available in PDF, although much of the voluminous material is yet to be fully explored by the team. As the files are much more recent than the material at Rockefeller, many are marked confidential (smallpox was eradicated in 1980, meaning many key actors are still alive).
Fortunately for me, I have been invited to participate in screening the files. Because I have so many (!), the WHO have asked me to identify any potentially sensitive or confidential material that I discover in the process of my research. This is not to gag me - I can still cite the material - but to use my close reading to flag any documents within the digitised files that may need more consideration or redaction before they are made available online in their entirety. I have been tasked with flagging evidence of individual patient records and information on vaccine composition/stability data, among other things. This is very exciting, and an interesting side-story to my research. It is also the first step in moving the digitised material into an online open-access repository. Some of the material that I have requested is already flagged as "confidential" and I will have to wait a couple of weeks to see if I am given access to these materials; the WHO is, of course, wary of releasing certain information that may alienate it's member nations.
Aside from the research, I have had a lovely time in Geneva. This is the fourth time that I have been to the city, and I am always surprised at how tranquil the place is. It is a large and grand city, but one never feels rushed or squashed. I have also had the chance to visit some colleagues at the university for the first time. Prices are high, of course, and this time I decided to stay in an apart-hotel that has a small kitchen. It means I can save a little money on food bills and also avoid the field-work trap of routinely eating lots of rich food! Today (my final day), I am also doing some preparatory groundwork for a new MA module that will involve a short field-trip to the Geneva-based health and development institutions. I also need to pick up some Toblerone...