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History and health


The aim of this module is to enable students to employ historical perspectives in the fields of public health and health services.


15 [150 hours]

Topics covered

The module begins with an introduction to the discipline of history, which traces its development, outlines some leading approaches and discusses its sources and methods. These themes are traced over the period of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the progression of the module reflecting the changing conceptualisation of public health through time, both with respect to how it was defined and its range of activities.

The geographical focus is both on Western countries in which industrialisation was first to occur, and on the global South, much of which was subject to colonial dominance until the mid-twentieth century. Some sections, such as those on health professions and twentieth-century public health make particular use of the UK as their case study.

The first main section of the module deals with developments in the nineteenth century, when public health emerged as a body of law and practice to address health risks associated with rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. Environmental and sanitary reforms and the formation of the modern medical profession are discussed, against the context of the period in which germ theory was articulated and only gradually accepted.

Next tropical medicine is introduced, investigating the importance of colonial economic interests and imperial attitudes to the early struggle against vector-borne diseases. The central section of the module provides detailed case studies. These include both diseases, such as malaria and sexually transmitted infections, and activities, like the consumption of tobacco, alcohol and drugs, which have come to be seen within a public health framework.

The final part of the module covers the twentieth century, first bringing into view the emergence of health systems within Western welfare states. Changes to public health as discipline and practice are then discussed: first its transition from environmentalism to education and personal hygiene, and then its emphasis since 1945 on evidence-based medicine and on strategies towards diseases associated with individual behaviour and lifestyle.

Next, international public health in the global South during and after decolonization is covered, examining approaches to disease control and famine, and the activities of non-governmental and supranational organisations. The module ends with an exploration of the uses of history in present-day policy and practice.

Learning outcomes

If you complete the course successfully, you should be able to:

  • Evaluate the historical dimensions of ongoing public health issues
  • Understand the historical context of public health and health services, in both the advanced industrial economies and the global South
  • Recognise the nature of historical debate and the contested status of historical claims
  • Analyse original documents so as to be able to assess a significant historical question


2hr 15 unseen written examination (70%) and an assessed assignment (30%).

If you fail the module, you are allowed one further attempt at the failed element (examination and/ or assignment).

Essential materials

In addition to the VLE and online library, you receive the following materials once you register:

  • A brief guide to studying the module.
  • The main textbook: Public Health in History by Virginia Berridge, Martin Gorsky and Alex Mold.
  • A reading list including details of both required and optional reading and links to selected papers.
  • A list of useful websites.

Find out more information about this module on the LSHTM website.