Social and Cultural Histories of Disease

Course Description

What is a disease? How do we describe its history? These may seem like simple questions. But answering them can be quite challenging. Definitions of disease change over time and space. There are also numerous ways to describe the history of disease. In this course we will examine alternative approaches to the history of disease, how they are constructed and the contribution each approach makes to the history of medicine. We will do this by examining histories of a number of diseases. Emphasis is on how people sought to comprehend disease in the past, what resources they mobilized to make such meanings, and the prevailing cultural and scientific norms that conditioned their thinking. We investigate the ways in which studying disease control and therapeutics in multiple contexts casts a critical light on the functioning of societies and governments. We also focus on how formulations of disease can shape notions of gender, class, race, and childhood, and vice versa. Students will analyze a variety of methodological approaches that historians have adopted in trying to understand and interpret different diseases.

See here for syllabus.

Course Learning Objectives

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

  • Identify how ‘disease’, ‘sickness’ and ‘illness’ differ from one another, and why this distinction matters.
  • Describe the main features of the history of a range of infectious and non-infectious diseases.
  • Understand how cultural, social, and scientific factors influenced how people have understood and defined disease in the past, and continue to do so.
  • Evaluate different methodological approaches to studying the history of disease.
  • Critique the “biography of disease” idiom in the history of medicine and public health.
Topics Covered
  • Green Sickness
  • Malaria
  • Breakbone Fever
  • From Wenbing to SARS
  • Diabetes
  • Ontological and Physiological Models
  • Fever
  • The Problem of Retrospective Diagnosis