Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Háriana 6 – Obituaries

I marked it my way

In the British weekly magazine Nursery World, on 18 October 2001, a short news item –
In brief... Maria Hari, director
Maria Hari, director of the Peto Institute, which developed conductive education, died at home in Budapest, Hungary, on 6 October. Conductive education for those suffering motor disorders from cerebral palsy, dyspraxia, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, head injuries or strokes, was developed by Andras Peto in Hungary after the Second World War. Miss Hari was chiefly responsible for developing the specialist profession of 'conductor'. Andrew Sutton, director of the London-based Foundation for Conductive Education, said, 'Ten years ago, disabled children and adults travelled to the Peto Institute in Budapest from across the UK. Many will grieve her passing but in years to come, as conductive education becomes more widely available here, many more will have cause to celebrate what she helped to build.'
I just about recall having taken a phone-call from the reporter from Nursery World. I wondered whether there might be more obituaries published in the professional press but by 2001 the popular Conductive Education furore was well over and there were none.

Mária's passing did, however, merit formal acknowledgement in the serious press. Two obituaries were published, one in the weekly Education section of the liberal Guardian newspaper, the other in the establishment medical trade paper, the British Medical Journal.

I wrote both, trying to attune each to what I supposed of their respective readerships. (including in the BMJ's following its tradition of giving the cause of death). The BMJ wanted a picture and we were able to provide one of the nicest photographic images that there is of her. 

Both of these obituaries of course remain on line.

Maria Hari

Advancing Peto's ideas on conductive education
for disabled children 

As director of the Peto Institute in Budapest, Dr Maria Hari, who has died aged 78 of cancer, became the worldwide symbol of conductive education for adults and children with motor disorders, and their families. Her life of singular dedication and determination required extraordinary adaptability, from a childhood under fascism, through Stalinism and goulash socialism, and on into free market capitalism.

At its heart, conductive education manifests the well-known principles that people learn best if committed to their own goals and have confidence in their power to change - best of all if they are taught by people who understand this process.

Conductive education adopted these principles for people disabled by neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, stroke and cerebral palsy. Why, it asks, should one assume that brain damage precludes anyone from learning? Appropriate teaching and learning are together the ultimate rehabilitational approach, offering education in its widest sense because learners are led to achieve their own goals.

In 1945, following the Soviet liberation of Budapest, the physician Andras Peto translated these principles into a practice which developed swiftly into the basis of what we now call conductive education, beginning with virtually no resources and reliant upon volunteers to help him. One was the young medical student Maria Hari.

She had been born into a well-to-do, though emotionally distant, family; a sister had a mild disability and spent her life in an institution. Hari herself received a privileged education. Small and spry, she developed an enthusiasm for what she later described in English as "making the gymnastic". A chance encounter with Janos Balogh, the eminent sports doctor, drew her enthusiasm to using movement therapeutically.

If she wished to do motor therapy, however, Hari first had to train as a doctor, something that could not be done until the second world war was over. By now poverty-stricken, she enrolled at Budapest Medical University, worked as a nurse to support her studies, and fell under the spell of Peto, spending more and more time with what was then called conductive motor therapy.

She qualified as a doctor in 1952, hoping to specialise as a rheumatologist. By now, however, Peto's work had been recognised by the Hungarian authorities, which built him the state institute for motor disorders. Peto needed Hari, and she stayed for the rest of her life.

During the 1950s, Peto redefined his conductive therapy as conductive pedagogy. As his health failed in the 1960s, Hari became increasingly involved in the training course that a modernising Hungary required. Like Peto, she followed the honourable tradition of physician-turned-educator and, after his death in 1967, became director in his stead.

Hungary was a most paradoxical people's democracy. A strong national tradition of education, plus a socialist welfare system, allowed Hari to expand Peto's state institute and refine its training programme, though never at the rate that she would have liked. Despite the isolation of working behind the Iron Curtain, she read widely, corresponded and even managed to make a few presentations in western Europe, including two in the UK. 

Like Peto before her, Hari played off party against government, and - as Hungary slowly opened up - foreign interest against internal opposition. In the mid-1980s, she began discussions with a small UK group, whose interest was supported by the British embassy.

As a result, in 1986, there appeared on BBC television a still-remembered documentary, Standing Up For Joe; the creation of a new charity, the Foundation for Conductive Education; a huge influx of families from the UK and other capitalist countries; unprecedented political support in Hungary - and international attention for Hari.

Suddenly, she found herself a star. Her modest mien, self-taught English and confidence suited the English-speaking media - and British politicians - and caught the imagination of those who wanted conductive education. To her horror, Hari became an icon.

These were confusing times for her and her institute (by now renamed the Peto Institute), soon compounded by the fall of the Iron Curtain. The institute was privatised, but a worldwide appeal failed to attract the funds for an international institute. Staff started leaving to work abroad, and the centre of gravity of conductive education moved away from its mother house.

When Hari retired in 1995, she continued lecturing and reassessing the role of conductive education. "Perhaps I was too rigid," she said towards the end of her life, "not enough flexible." She had kept Peto's system alive into a world beyond his comprehension, but she recognised that educational inclusion, new attitudes to disability, the confirmation of brain science and changing economies meant that it was time to innovate and build upon the past.

Her contribution was especially recognised in the UK. In 1988, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Birmingham and, in 1994, was appointed honorary professor of education at the University of Keele. She was awarded the OBE in 1990. But to thousands of families around the world, she was simply a small, determined woman who gave them hope for a better life.

Maria Jozefa Hari, physician and educator, born September 26 1923; died October 6 2001.

ria Jozefa Hári

Former director of the Pető Institute, Budapest, Hungary (b 1923, q Budapest 1952), died on 6 October 2001 from spinal cancer. 

Mária Hári brought new hope to disabled people around the world through conductive education. In the late 1980s, following the BBC television documentary Standing up for Joe – the account of a young couple who travel from England to Budapest in the hope of getting their severely disabled child, Joe, admitted to the Pető Institute—she opened the doors of the institute to foreign children and their families. Even though Hungary then lay behind the Iron Curtain, more than a thousand British families and many more from other countries made the journey to Budapest to find conductive education.

Conductive education was developed by Hungarian doctor András Pető after the second world war as a way of seeking to rehabilitate children and adults with motor disorders, such as cerebral palsy, dyspraxia, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, hed injuries, and stroke. Pető claimed that people with motor disabilities could be treated through normal ways of practising and learning instead of through special therapies. Mária Hári worked as a volunteer with Pető from 1945 while she was still a medical student. She stayed with him following qualification, playing a major role in formalising his approach.

In 1967 she succeeded Pető as director of his institute and completed the transformation of conductive education from a therapy to an educational system. When conductive education became the subject of international interest in the mid 1980s she adapted readily to the role of diplomat and served as trustee for the Foundation for Conductive Education in the United Kingdom. 

British people will remember her as a little woman at once self effacing and completely in control. They will remember the firm, confident assertion that a disabled child or adult could indeed learn, followed by immediate practical demonstration that this was indeed so. She had an amazing ability to communicate in self-taught English and a skittish sense of humour.

Pető 's institute occupied her whole adult life, leaving her virtually no time for private interests or existence. She retired in 1994 but continued lecturing there until this summer, still working on Pető 's private papers throughout her final illness.

Mária Hári grew up under fascism, qualified as a doctor under socialism, and steered the institute right through into capitalism. She never married and leaves no surviving relatives. But there are now nearly two hundred places around the world where conductors practise their craft.


Sutton, A. (2001) Maria Hari: advancing Peto's ideas on conductive education for disabled children, The Guardian, 24 October

Sutton, A. (2001) Mária Jozefa Hári, British Medical Journal, vol. 323, 20 October

Gill Maguire collected and bound together a considerable collection of press reports following Mária's death

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