The History of Global Health

“Courses in epidemiology, public health and global health—three subjects that were not offered by most colleges a generation ago—are hot classes on campuses these days.  They are drawing undergraduates to lecture halls in record numbers, prompting a scrable by colleges to hire faculty and import ready-made courses.  Schools that have taught the subjects for years have expanded their offereings in response to a surging demand.” –Washington Post

This excerpt from the Washington Post in September 2008 observed that “for a global generation, public health is a hot field.”(1)  This trend is new and unprecedented as the youth of today, a generation termed the “first globals”, have been drawn to global public health and disease.

While this surge of interest is new, the collection of problems under the umbrella of global health is not.  The basic principles of the debate are not novel, nor are most of the efforts and strategies employed to affect the health of populations.  The issues in global health are old ones, and many of the institutions confronting these challenges are mature bureaucracies.   Even the identification and prioritization of global health issues—what historians of science have called “problem choice”—is constrained by social and political forces with roots in the 19th century.(2) 

Global health today is a collection of problems, institutions, people, initiatives, and diseases that are rooted in the past.  Historical forces and events, from colonialism to the advent of penicillin, have shaped the current state of global health.  Thus, understanding the history of global health can help us to respond to the health challenges of today.   Although most global health workers are not historians, all should recognize the importance of historical factors in contemporary health problems.  

To understand the intended and unintended consequences sparked by global health interventions, one must examine continuities and divergences from the past.  This course seeks to provide such an understanding through a brief historical outline of global health efforts.  Beginning with colonial conceptions of public health, this course traces global health through the therapeutic revolution, eradication campaigns, the primary health care movement, and the development movement.  In addition, this course highlights traditional tensions in global health work and emphasizes contemporary challenges.

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(1) Brown, David. “For a Global Generation, Public Health is a Hot Field,” The Washington Post, September 19, 2008.

(2) Farmer, Paul. “Colonial medicine vs. post-colonial medicine and their legacies: Facts and Myths.”  Lecture, Harvard University. September 15, 2009.