Disease, Health and History

This information is for the 2022/23 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof Eric Schneider SAR 5.18


This course is available on the BSc in Economic History, BSc in Economic History with Economics and BSc in Economics and Economic History. This course is not available as an outside option nor to General Course students.

Course content

Infectious disease has profoundly affected health, well-being and society in the past. Although we are currently primed to think first of mass pandemics such as the Black Death, the influence of disease is often more subtle, sapping a person’s energy and well-being without causing death. However, humans have not simply been the pawns of various diseases over time. We have actively contributed to the spread of disease, for instance by transporting yellow fever to the New World, and we have sought to control the disease environment to make it more healthy for humans. This course explores the inter-relationship between infectious disease and humans’ efforts to control it over the past five hundred years.

The course focuses on four questions:

1. How has infectious disease shaped population health, society and the economy over time?

2. What factors influenced infectious disease prevalence in the past?

3. How have social factors affected inequality in disease prevalence and health?

4. How have humans sought to exert control over infectious disease and how successful were these efforts?

The course is split into four units. The first unit provides a window into infectious disease in the premodern world by studying the Colombian Exchange, the exchange of pathogens following the integration of the New World into the global economy at the end of the fifteenth century. We will discuss the factors that made it possible for Old World pathogens such as smallpox and yellow fever to cross the Atlantic and also the factors that made these pathogens particularly virulent for populations in the New World.

The second unit focuses on the epidemiologic transition, the vast improvements in health since the mid nineteenth century largely driven by the control of infectious disease. We will explore how societies were able to control infectious disease in ways that were impossible before, i.e. to what extent did improving nutrition, public health measures, medical interventions, individual behaviours and household decisions affect the reduction in infectious disease mortality? We will also discuss whether the improvements have been shared equally across all dimensions of health, focusing on changes in fetal health and morbidity.

The third unit explores inequalities in population health including inequalities due to class, race and gender. We will explore how these social factors influenced different groups’ susceptibility to disease and the drivers that increased or reduced health inequalities in the long run.

The fourth unit focuses specifically on national and global efforts to eradicate specific infectious diseases throughout history. We will discuss why the smallpox eradication campaign was successful but the malaria eradication campaign of the postwar period was not. We will also consider whether eradicating these diseases had an influence on economic growth. Finally, we will evaluate what lessons historical disease eradication campaigns have for efforts to eradicate other diseases in the world today.


20 hours of classes in the MT. 20 hours of classes in the LT. 2 hours of classes in the ST.

This course is taught as a seminar, with classes totalling 40 hours across the Michaelmas and Lent Terms. The two-hour seminar in ST will be a revision seminar.

This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Michaelmas and Lent Term.


Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 piece of coursework in the ST and 2 essays and 3 presentations in the MT and LT.

Students will write two formative essays during Michaelmas and Lent Terms. Students will also be responsible for group presentations throughout the course. The final formative assessment will be a mock take-home exam due at the beginning of Summer Term.

Indicative reading

Floud, R., Fogel, R. W., Harris, B., & Hong, S. C. (2011). The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700. Cambridge University Press.

Goldin, C., & Lleras-Muney, A. (2019). XX > XY?: The changing female advantage in life expectancy. Journal of Health Economics, 67, 102224. doi: 10.1016/j.jhealeco.2019.102224

Hardy, A. (1993). The Epidemic Streets: Infectious Disease and the Rise of Preventive Medicine, 1856-1900. Oxford University Press.

Harper, K. (2021). Plagues upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History. Princeton University Press.

Livi-Bacci, M. (2006). The Depopulation of Hispanic America after the Conquest. Population and Development Review, 32(2), 199–232. doi: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2006.00116.x

Schneider, E. B. (2017). Fetal health stagnation: Have health conditions in utero improved in the United States and Western and Northern Europe over the past 150 years? Social Science & Medicine, 179, 18–26. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.02.018

Troesken, W. (2004). Water, Race, and Disease. MIT Press.

Webb, J. L. A. (2009). Humanity's Burden: A Global History of Malaria. Cambridge University Press.


Take-home assessment (100%) in the ST.

Key facts

Department: Economic History

Total students 2021/22: Unavailable

Average class size 2021/22: Unavailable

Capped 2021/22: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Personal development skills

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