Human Health in History

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Eric Schneider SAR.5.18 and Prof 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 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 the Black Death 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 epidemic disease with particular reference to smallpox, plague 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 5,000 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 four essays or equivalent pieces of work. In MT this includes a group research project to prepare students for the individual research paper that forms part of the summative assessment.

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%, 5000 words) in the LT.

The 5,000-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.


Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2018/19: 4

Average class size 2018/19: 4

Controlled access 2018/19: No

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