Tuesday, 15 September 2015


A little window on something big

András Pető's involvement in the treatment of polio-survivors in Budapest, has never been more that a small footnote in the history of Conductive Education, a system that has liked to see itself teleologically as having been developed specifically for cerebral palsy. There has been no historical account of this aspect of his work from within Conductive Education, and those working in the field of post-polio seem not to have taken an interest.

As part of a more wide-ranging account, dealing with disability in Hungary and the serious financial crisis at the Pető Institute a couple of years ago, Dora Vargha of Birkbeck College, London, published an interesting account indicating that there is rather more to this story than is presently apparent, that 'politics' is not a matter peculiar to Conductive Education – and that András Pető did not always win his battles.

Leave it to what-if history to speculate how different things might have been if he had won this one.

Dora Vargha wrote –
Very much real threats of government officials trying to lay a claim to valuable real estate in the hands of institutions caring for disabled children are not without precedent. Over half a century ago, the rival of András Pető in physical disability care, László Lukács fought – and won – a battle against the communist government for the Heine-Medin Post-Treatment Hospital’s buildings. This hospital was established in a process covering months before, during and after the 1956 revolution, therefore its political legitimacy was more than problematic. A brief manuscript gives insight into the political maneuvering of its director, László Lukács, as he stated:
"The Health Minister proposed that the institution belong directly to the Ministry, but I could also choose to put it under the authority of the City of Budapest instead. I chose the latter. […] The chief doctor of the city was Dr. János Vikol, who had […] firmly supported the cause of the disabled. The other reason was that I didn’t trust the leaders of the Health Ministry, I feared [undoing], a hope of the 200 leading party members with the intention of getting back the distinguished treatment of their children." 
Although maintaining the new institution and its buildings after the revolution clearly required political skills, the fact that the doctor-director could choose which authority the institution should belong to, implies the great importance assigned to the cause, leaving Lukács with a certain political independence. Meanwhile, he also had to deal with the hostility of the political elite, who felt that the establishment of the hospital would curb their privileges in childcare.
The reason for this was that the Heine-Medin Hospital opened in five buildings that previously belonged to the Rákosi Mátyás kindergarten, a childcare home for privileged party officials in the prestigious district of the Rózsadomb in the Buda hills. The houses were for the most part nationalized residences of the economic and political elite of another era. The villas were scattered in the most sought-after part of the city, among green lawns with small patches of woods and swimming pools around them. It is no coincidence that an institution founded during the 1956 revolution was established in buildings with such history: this was a small, but obvious attack against the hated political elite.
Lukács’s cause was “helped” by the fact that severe polio epidemics were sweeping through the country year by year, causing fear in parents from the members of the Ministry Council to iron workers and leaving children paralyzed by the thousands. However, as soon as polio vaccination succeeded in putting a stop to epidemics in Hungary, Lukács soon lost the overall war for his institution and after merely six years of opening its doors to exclusive disability care, the hospital had to let go of its patients and its profile in specialized care.
András Pető's defeat might also have been related to his health and strength. He suffered his first heart attack in 1953...

As for later problems at the Pető Institute...

Dora Vargha's account offers a perspective on this in the context of disabled people in Hungary generally (incidentally the only one that I have come across from an outside academic source). This was not all that long ago...

As a bonus, there is a further background item by her colleague David Bryan, offering a useful introductory briefing on the entanglement of Conductive Education in the Cold War, Princess Diana and all:



Bryan, D. (2014) To Hungary with love, Reluctant Internationalists,

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Anonymous Andrew Sutton said...

In historical and personal context

Social, political and medical context of that epidemic, and some of its human side.

András Pető does not feature, but the context was his too.

Read it for a feel of his times →

Wednesday, 16 September 2015 at 13:09:00 BST  

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