2011-2013 Program

Health, Disease, and Environment in World History



Tuberculosis Poster - Don't Kiss me! Your kiss of affection. The germ of infection.


Today, the wellbeing of human populations and the nature of the environment we inhabit are inseparable. Transportation networks facilitate the spread of pathogens, while global urbanization is devouring land and resources at an unprecedented rate. Pesticides and antibiotics encourage the generation of resistant bacteria and viruses. Climate change affects animal migration patterns and global agriculture alike. Malthusians warn of overpopulation, while optimists insist that technological progress will allow us to escape crisis. Pollutants, food additives and synthetic substances interact with living bodies in unpredictable ways. Consumption of meat, water, and fossil fuels continues to rise. Yet medical advances and public health initiatives mean that a substantial amount of the world’s population lives longer than ever before. Our planet supports more people than at any point in history. Yet still a sense of unease and incipient crisis persists.


These events and issues have historical foundations. All human groups have modified their environments and battled endemic and epidemic diseases. Societies have collapsed due to environmental degradation or pandemics. Over the last few centuries, as the planet has become more interconnected and “globalized,” issues of environment and disease have become correspondingly more interconnected and “globalized.” This globalization has not produced epidemiological and environmental equality: large swathes of the global south live without access to the most basic healthcare, and waterborne diseases are rampant. These areas are also the most vulnerable to climate change. Health, disease, and environment are among the most pressing political issues today, at local and global levels.


We propose a two-year lecture and seminar program devoted to these vast and fundamental issues. The literature devoted to health, disease, and environment in world history is enormous and interdisciplinary. Our focus is upon four themes:  demographic transitions, epidemiology in history, the dialectic between environment and disease, and the relationship of race, poverty, and inequality to disease.  The themes will connect the local with the global–we will begin with overarching, global issues and move to more local questions thereafter.


Program for 2011-2012


Good Grades and Habits Go Together Poster

The first year of the “Health, Disease, and Environment in World History” program will explore two issues: demographic transitions and epidemiology in world history. Each will comprise 6 sessions.


1. Demographic transitions. This introductory part of the program looks at the role of public health in processes of demographic change in history. We aim to invite speakers and fellows whose work concentrates on demographic transformation. The emergence of the modern demographic regime will be a particular object of focus, including but not exclusively the debate regarding the relative impact of public health efforts, broadly defined, vs. economic growth, on the modern demographic transition.  We also plan to explore premodern demographic issues. For example, we intend to invite scholars working on the demography of the Roman or Byzantine Empires, whose work explores how and why cities like Rome and Constantinople were able to support enormous populations. Additionally, we hope to invite scholars whose work explores the ways in which demographic transition has been historically perceived and conceptualized, for example by Malthusians, Darwinians and eugenicists.  We will also invite scholars working on the general problem of human health over “the very long term.”  These lectures and seminars aim to provide a larger, metanarrative structure for those which follow:  a “big picture” of global population history to which more historically-specific and geographically-localized studies will be related.


2. Epidemiology in World History. Epidemics and pandemics have played an enduring role in shaping historical events. The Justinian Plagues and the Black Death shattered ancient and medieval societies across the Old World, Europeans conquered the New World with the aid of smallpox, and AIDS has shattered the economies of numerous African states. Here, we will welcome speakers and fellows whose work explores particular epidemics and the social, cultural, economic and political change that followed in their wake. We might appeal to scholars working on “classic” issues in the history of epidemics, like the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century or cholera in the nineteenth, or we might attract those working on less well-known diseases or ones whose vectors did not traverse the West. We will also appeal to scholars working on the impact of animal diseases, like rinderpest and avian influenza.  Finally, scholars working on the social production of medical knowledge will also be invited.


Program for 2012-2013


Medical Symbol


The second year of the “Health, Disease, and Environment in World History” program will examine two further themes: the dialectic between environment and disease, and race, poverty, inequality and disease.


3. Environment and Disease. This theme moves away from epidemiology towards environmental issues. We look at ways in which the human transformation of the economy and the environment has created new public health challenges, but also at ways in which “natural” environments have generated particular disease ecologies. For example, we might attract scholars looking at industrial disease, urbanization and disease, waste disposal, and fire or those examining diseases shaped by environments, like malaria, allergies, or asthma. We might appeal to scholars working on “lifestyle diseases” like lung cancer. Demographic transitions can thus be related, in positive or negative ways, to transformations in technology and “material life.”


4. Race, Poverty, Inequality and Disease. This final theme concentrates on political questions arising from the first three themes. Throughout human history, the rich have lived longer than the poor. They have inhabited different environments, as Engels famously noted in his writing on the British working class. This relationship has, of course, frequently had a racial dimension. Within the British Empire, for example, white colonizers regularly took control of high ground on the argument that it was more salubrious. In South Africa, white populations argued that different racial groups belonged in different geographical zones. Access to clean water, shelter and energy is radically different in the “developed” and the “developing” world. As the program draws to a close, we will invite scholars to speculate on the causes and consequences of these most visceral forms of inequality.


Program Committee

John Brooke, Department of History, Co-Chair
Chris Otter, Department of History, Co-Chair
Timothy Buckley, School of Public Health, Co-Chair
James Bartholomew, Department of History
Alan Beyerchen, Department of History
Nick Breyfogle, Department of History
Phil Brown, Department of History
John Burnham, Department of History
Bill Childs, Department of History
Leo Coleman, Dept. of Comparative Studies
Mai-Po Kwan, Department of Geography
Clark Larsen, Department of Anthropology
Jennifer Siegel, Department of History
Mytheli Sreenevas, Department of History
Richard Steckel, Department of Economics


Applications for fellowships for the 2012-2013 program are due March 15, 2012.