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History of International Health

Course Number
5700 (Global Health)
Course Instructor(s)
Anne-​Emanuelle Birn

Course Description

This graduate seminar explores the ideologies, institutions, and practices of the field of international/global health from its imperial origins to the present. Themes covered include: the role of health in empire-building, commercial expansion, migration, and labor productivity; perennial fears around epidemics/pandemics and their economic and social consequences; class, racial, and gendered dimensions of health research and approaches; the contest over defining, healing, and “saving” the “diseased” minds, bodies, and souls of Indigenous, racialized, and non-metropolitan subjects; and the moral politics of sex, maternity, and fertility.

Through examination of historical sources (documents and films) and scholarly research, we seek to understand the political, scientific, social, and economic underpinnings of the principles and cooperative activities of the international/global health field, its embedded cultural values, and its continuities and discontinuities (e.g. between international and global health).  The course provides a critical historical perspective on many of the contemporary concerns of global health, such as: the tensions around (bio)security and borders; humanitarianism, foreign policy, and development “assistance”; the role of international agencies and actors in shaping/responding to local versus global priorities and politics; and the struggle over global health’s techno-biological versus integrative-social justice paradigms of success.

Course Objectives

  1. To become familiar with a sample of recent and classic scholarship on the history of international health.
  2. To increase the ability to think critically about international health ideologies, institutions, and practices, past and present.
  3. To understand the contemporary fields of global and international health in historical perspective.
  4. To hone skills in oral discussion and debate, research, and writing.

Methods of Assessment

Class participation, including discussant role 20%
Briefing Memo 20%
Outline and Annotated Bibliography 10%
Paper presentation 15%
Final paper 35%
  • Discussant Role: Each week one or two students will be in charge of raising questions from the readings, leading discussion, and commenting on the films. The student discussant(s) will have up to 10 minutes for an initial presentation (which should be analytical, NOT a summary of the readings) and should develop a 1-page handout for class members to accompany the discussion. Other students should come to class prepared with at least 2 questions or analytical points from the readings.
  • Colonial/International Health Officer Briefing Memo: Prepare a 3-5 page (typed, double-spaced, standard font and margins) briefing memo from the perspective of a late 19th or early 20th century medical officer justifying the importance of a particular international health activity or policy. The memo should be written to a high-level administrator in a colonial office or international organization and should outline the scope and nature of the initiative and provide a clear rationale for its implementation.  The memo should draw from events and experiences covered in the course readings but may also “invent” relevant (historically contextualized) details.
  • Research Paper 20-25 pages (typed, double-spaced, standard font and margins). Provide an in-depth historical analysis of any topic in the recent or distant past of international health.   Use newspapers, medical journals, images, and other available sources to reconstruct “all sides” of the story.   A more detailed description of the assignment will be distributed in class.

Assignments handed in after the due date will be penalized (unless an extension has been pre-approved).

Class Sessions

  1. Understanding the Past: (Why) Does it Matter for Global Health?
  2. Mind, Body, Race, and the Building of (Modern) Empire
  3. Missionaries of Health
  4. Institutionalizing International Health: Protecting Commerce/ Safeguarding Borders
  5. Industry, Research, and “Colonial” and “Tropical” Medicine
  6. Population and Health Part 1: The Imperial Context—Sex and Maternity


  1. Of Bugs and Cooperation: The Rockefeller model and its legacy
  2. The Rise of International Health Organizations and their Postwar Reordering
  3. WHO vs. Disease: The Big Campaigns – Malaria, Smallpox, and Polio
  4. Population and Health Part 2: The Cold War Context –Ideology, Reproduction, and Hot War Humanitarianism
  5. 26 Alma-Ata versus the Washington Consensus (International Financial Institutions’) approach to health
  6. With or Without Bono: Whose globe and whose health (and whose humanitarianism)?