Course: Disease, Public Health, and the Making of the Modern World

HC 232H

Professor: Melissa Graboyes

This class examines the emergence of modern debates about health and disease and practices of public health in order to gain insight into the larger social, cultural, and political history of the modern world. The class will be broad in geographical and chronological scope. During the quarter we will discuss the eradication of malaria in the United States; protests against polio vaccination in Northern Nigeria; smallpox eradication practices in India; the epidemiology of yellow fever in Brazil; the origins of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; and current vaccine anxieties in the United Kingdom. We’ll also review the impact of factors more commonly associated with “modernity,” such as the agricultural revolution, industrialization, urbanization, and increased globalization.  We will focus on the century from 1880-1980, which includes the birth of modern medicine and public health. Within this time frame, we will trace the history of epidemics and, eventually, epidemiology, and examine the larger field of medicine and sub-fields such as microbiology and tropical medicine.

After the turn of the century, we will turn our gaze to international public health organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the World Health Organization and eradication campaigns led by these groups. The course will conclude with a focus on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, a disease that has been labeled a “uniquely modern” ailment. We will engage with a set of interdisciplinary readings from historians, anthropologists, epidemiologists and doctors in addition to using two new books: Nancy Stepan’s Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever? and Jacques Pepin’s The Origins of AIDS. We will also be reading primary source documents as a contrast to official, institutional narratives. A primary goal is to build skills for good historical writing and thinking, which includes close scrutiny of sources and the chance to revise one’s own work. Writing assignments responding to specific texts will build toward a larger paper requiring students to make a historical argument, integrate multiple sources, and address a major theme of the course. We will work through multiple drafts of writing assignments and also spend time self and peer editing. Most class time will be spent in seminar-style discussion and students will have the opportunity to lead a class session.