MA History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
The Politics of Public Health

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM60722
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit? No


On the eve of the UK general elections of 2019, the chief executive of the NHS, Chris Hopson made an appeal to all the political parties urging them not to politicize the NHS during the election campaign. Taking a cue from this, the unit will explore the question of politics inherent in the history of modern public health. It will explore how historically access to or even the lack of health and welfare facilities have been defined by political processes and choices. Accessing various historical and contemporary cases, this unit will establish that public health was and continues to be politically defined. This will help students interested in public health to appreciate that even the future questions of public health might depend on political processes.


- Introduce students to the idea that access to public health has been politically determined over time and across geographical locations. 
- Understand the role and nature of politics in public health provision, whether in terms of grassroots movements, state initiatives, or individual initiatives.
- Examine the various political contexts which defined the emergence of modern public health.
- Explore various global cases, from Britain to China, of the political imperative in the establishment and running of public health
- Initiate discussion how the future of global and local public health similarly depends on political choices and deliberate on what those choices ought to be. 

Teaching and learning methods

The unit will be taught in six two-hour seminar sessions, where we will discuss a range of required readings (primary and secondary). While students are asked to read all required readings for the week, they will be expected to assign themselves a reading which they introduce and discuss to the group as a whole, analysing the author’s argument and placing it in context. All readings will be made available through Blackboard, and the course handbook will contain a number of questions that are designed to focus the students’ reading and act as prompts for the seminar discussion. The unit lead will start each seminar by giving a short (5-10 minute) background introduction, and discussion will then centre on the key readings and questions. Seminar performance is not marked, but each student will be expected to contribute equally. 

Knowledge and understanding

- Demonstrate extensive knowledge of major trends in the provision and politics of public health, from the nineteenth century to the present day, and in European and global contexts.

Intellectual skills

- Place understandings of these practices and associated ideologies in historical context
- Understand relevant secondary literature on topics listed above
- Use historical literature to understand and critique contemporary debates 
- Identify fruitful topics for research essays in the history of public health

Practical skills

- Locate relevant primary and secondary sources, for weekly seminars and for research essays
- Plan and write a research essay

Transferable skills and personal qualities

- Work independently when appropriate, e.g. in preparing for seminars and essay writing
- Work in groups to determine who takes the lead in discussing particular readings each week. 
- Discuss work in a group environment, contributing to discussion and listening. 

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 100%

Feedback methods

Detailed written feedback, delivered electronically and in person if requested. 

Recommended reading

  • Cummins I. The Impact of Austerity on Mental Health Service Provision: A UK Perspective. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(6):1145. Published 2018 Jun 1. doi:10.3390/ijerph15061145
  • Ryan, Frances. Crippled¿: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People. London¿;: Verso, 2019
  • Szreter, Simon. “Rethinking McKeown: the Relationship between Public Health and Social Change.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 92, no. 5, 2002, pp. 722–5.
  • Colgrove, James. “The McKeown Thesis: a Historical Controversy and Its Enduring Influence.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 92, no. 5, 2002, pp. 725–9.
  • Stewart, John. The Battle for Health: a Political History of the Socialist Medical Association, 1930-51.
  • Murray, David Stark. Why a National Health Service? : the Part Played by the Socialist Medical Association. London, Pemberton Books, 1971
  • Ziersch, A M, and F E Baum. “Involvement in Civil Society Groups: Is It Good for Your Health?” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, vol. 58, no. 6, 2004, p. 493.
  • Marmot, Michael. “Fair Society Healthy Lives.” Inequalities in Health. Oxford University Press, 2013

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 12
Independent study hours
Independent study 138

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ian Burney Unit coordinator
Pratik Chakrabarti Unit coordinator

Return to course details