A History of Epidemics from the Plague to Zika (HIH1027)

StaffDr Dora Vargha - Lecturer
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level4
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

The aim of the module is to introduce students to the broad range of sources available to the modern historian through study of the history of epidemics from a cultural, social, political and medical perspective. Individual seminars (see topic list below) will focus on various sources, such as government records, photographs, memoirs, oral history interviews, advertisements, letters, newspaper articles, films, and objects. Students will also have the opportunity to conduct their own research into these sources, consider their value and limitations, and use them to explore particular topics and themes. This module will help students develop skills in source analysis and research to provide a foundation for future historical work.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Understand and assess the main developments in the history of epidemics, the body and medicine
  • 2. Work critically with a range of written and visual sources relating to the topic.
  • 3. Assess the sources in relation to the historical debates, purposes for which different contemporary sources were produced, and analyse and evaluate their reliability and usefulness for the study of epidemics, the body and medicine.

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Identify the problems of using historical sources, e.g. utility, limitations, etc, and compare the validity of different types of sources.
  • 5. Answer a question briefly and concisely.
  • 6. Present work orally, respond to questions orally, and think quickly of questions to ask other students.

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 7. Conduct independent study and group work, including the presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning.
  • 8. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment.
  • 9. Work with others in a team and to interact effectively with the tutor and the wider group.
  • 10. Write to a very tight word-length.

Syllabus plan

Weekly seminar topics may vary, but may include: the Black Death; The New World and an exchange of diseases; Empire and Epidemics; Choleric states; Sex and the City; Consumption; Eradicate! Yellow Fever, smallpox and malaria in the 20th century; Crossing the Iron Curtain – polio in the Cold War; global epidemics and international health organizations; Zika - Regulating the unknown.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities22 hour lecture: Introduction to module.
Scheduled learning and teaching activities2010 x 2 hour seminars. At a meeting of the whole class generally a different group of 3-4 students will give a presentation to the whole class, followed by class discussion and working through the sources for that week carefully. Additional sources may be issued in the class and the lecturer will also use the time to set up issues for the following week.
Guided independent study128Students prepare for the session through reading and research; writing five source commentaries and an essay and preparing one group presentation in the course of the term.

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Group presentation (3-4 students)10-15 minutes1-4, 6-7, 9Oral
Lowest mark from portfolio of 5 source commentaries500 words1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
4 highest marks from portfolio of 5 source commentaries602000 words (500 per commentary)1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments.
Essay on Sources401500 words1-5, 7-8, 10Mark and written comments

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
4 highest marks of portfolio of 5 source commentaries4 highest marks of portfolio of 5 source commentaries1-5, 7-8, 10Referral/deferral period.
1500-word essay1500-word essay1-5, 7-8, 10Referral/deferral period.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Rosenberg, Charles. "What Is an Epidemic? Aids in Historical Perspective." Daedalus 118, no. 2 (1989): 1-17.
  • Slack, Paul. “Responses to plague in early modern Europe: The implications of public health” in Arien Mack, ed. In Time of Plague: The history and social consequences of lethal epidemic disease.  NYU Press, 1991
  • The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas. Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 24, Number 2—Spring 2010
  • S. Bhattacharya, ‘Re-devising  Jennerian Vaccines?: European Technologies, Indian Innovation and the Control of Smallpox in South Asia, 1850-1950’, in Biswamoy Pati and Mark Harrison (eds),  Health, 8 Medicine and Empire: Perspectives on Colonial India (Orient Longman Limited and Sangam Books, 2001)
  • Coleman, William. "Epidemiological Method in the 1860s: Yellow Fever at Saint- Nazaire." Bulletin for the History of Medicine 58, no. 2 (1984): 145.
  • Jeff Sahadeo, "Epidemic and Empire: Ethnicity, Class, and "Civilization" in the 1892 Tashkent Cholera Riot", Slavic Review, 64, 1 (2005)
  • Hall, Lesley A., Sex, Sin and Suffering. Venereal Disease and European Society since 1870 (2001)
  • Luise White,  "Tsetse visions: Narratives of  Blood and Bugs in Colonial Northern Rhodesia, 1931-39," Journal of  African History,  36, 2 (1995)
  • Saul Benison, "International medical cooperation: Dr. Albert Sabin, live poliovirus vaccine and the Soviets," Bulletin of the history of medicine 56 (1982)
  • Michael Worboys, 'From Heredity to Infection: Tuberculosis, Bacteriology and Medicine, 1870-1900' in his Spreading Germs, Cambridge University Press, 2000
  • Packard, R. M. ""No Other Logical Choice": Global Malaria Eradication and the Politics of International Health in the Post-War Era." Parassitologia 40, no. 1/2 (1998): 217-30.
  • N. B. King, 'Security, Disease, Commerce: Ideologies of Post-Colonial Global Health', Social Studies of Science, 32 (2002)


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Key words search

Epidemics, global health, disease, state, disability, medical history, history of science