Human Health in History

This information is for the 2018/19 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Eric Schneider SAR.5.18 and Dr Patrick Wallis SAR.5.11


This course is available on the MRes/PhD in Quantitative Economic History, MSc in Economic History, MSc in Economic History (Research), MSc in Empires, Colonialism and Globalisation, MSc in Global Economic History (Erasmus Mundus) and MSc in Political Economy of Late Development. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Course content

This course explores how human health has changed over time and tracks how the environment, society, public health infrastructure, medical practice and health systems have influenced health. The course begins with a three-seminar survey of how health has changed from the Neolithic era onwards. Subsequent thematic sets of seminars study the following topics in more detail:

  • Health in the pre-Industrial world including discussion of plague, the Columbian Exchange and American slavery
  • The epidemiological and health transition with weekly topics on the germ theory of disease, medical innovations, sanitation and the developmental origins of health
  • The development of health systems from the early modern period to the present
  • Combating disease with particular reference to smallpox, cholera and AIDS
  • The influence of health on society and the economy including topics on health and economic growth, gender disparities in health and morbidity

One of the focuses of the course will be critical engagement with the sources and methods that historians have used to reconstruct health history. Students will also complete a 3,000 word research paper based on primary sources or data on a health history topic as part of the summative assessment.


20 hours of seminars in the MT. 20 hours of seminars in the LT. 1 hour of seminars in the ST.

Students on this course will have a reading week in Week 6, in line with departmental policy.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay and 1 project in the MT and 1 essay and 1 other piece of coursework in the LT.

Formative essay (1,500 words) due in week 8 of Michaelmas Term

  • Choose one of three practice exam questions

Group research project

  • We will introduce the project along with various datasets/qualitative sources that students could use in topic 5 and give the students time to meet together and come up with an idea.
  • Then they will have reading week and the rest of term to develop their research project.
  • They will give a 10-minute presentation of the project to the class in weeks 8-9 of Michaelmas Term.
  • A 1,500 word essay will be due in week 11 of Michaelmas Term.

Research project proposal (one page) due in week 2 of Lent Term

  • Explain the historical question you will address
  • Describe the data and methodology that you will use to address the question

Formative essay (1,500 words) due in week 1 of Summer Term

Indicative reading

Floud, Roderick, Robert W. Fogel, Bernard Harris and Sok Chul Hong, The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700 (Cambridge, 2011).

Harrison, Mark, Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present (Cambridge, 2004).

Livi-Bacci, Massimo, A Concise History of Population (Chichester, 2012).

Almond, Douglas and Janet Currie, ‘Killing Me Softly: The Fetal Origins Hypothesis’, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25, no. 3 (2011), pp. 153-172.

Costa, Dora, ‘Health and the Economy in the United States, from 1750 to the Present’, NBER Working Paper, no. 19685 (2013).

Hays, J. N., The Burdens of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History (New Brunswick NJ, 1998).

Steckel, Richard H., ‘Stature and the Standard of Living’, Journal of Economic Literature, 33, no. 4 (1995), pp. 1903-1940.

Wallis, Patrick, ‘Introduction: The Growth of the Early Modern Medical Economy’, Journal of Social History, 49, no. 3 (2016), pp. 477-483.


Exam (50%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Project (50%, 3000 words) in the LT.

The two-hour unseen exam will cover all topics of the course and take place during the main examination period.

The 3,000-word summative research project is an opportunity for students to conduct their own primary-source research into the history of health. Students can either use a  primary source available as a dataset, or they can venture out to the archives to collect additional information as a basis for their project. The project must be historical (pre-1990) and cannot directly replicate studies in the literature using the same data. However, it can test another author’s result using new sources or use the same sources to test a different question. The project can use quantitative or qualitative methods (or both) based on each student’s preference. The project will be due by 4:00 pm on Thursday of week 11 of Lent Term. More detailed guidance on the project will be disseminated early in Michaelmas Term.


Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2017/18: 14

Average class size 2017/18: 14

Controlled access 2017/18: Yes

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Application of numeracy skills
  • Specialist skills