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Course Details

Module Leader: Roberta Bivins

Meeting Time: Monday 1-3

Meeting Place: H3.44

Aims and Objectives

In the United States today, medicine and medical understandings of health and disease permeate daily life. Americans obey ‘No Smoking’ signs, obsess about ‘cutting calories’, buy only USDA certified meat, and worry about ‘germs’. They also pay more for their medical care than any other developed nation. In each of these everyday examples, the environment, individual choices, and personal concerns have been shaped by medical arguments and knowledge. Has medicine always played such a visible role in American culture and daily life? How did it become normal for Americans routinely to conceptualize their bodies and activities in terms of chemicals, calories, and contaminants?
This course offers an overview of the history of medicine in the United States from the nineteenth century to the present, and explores key comparisons with health care and medical practices elsewhere in the world. It will address themes such as the emergence of 'scientific' medicine; race, gender and 'medical distinctiveness'; the relationship between medicine and migration; and the rise and rise of biomedical power in defining and interpreting bodies, health, and disease. Students will explore these themes through historical documents, films, media accounts, secondary sources, and case studies.

Fighting the war on cancer



Term One
Key episodes in and debates surrounding the history of medicine in America from the Early Republic through Progressivism, with a particular emphasis on questions of medical distinctiveness (e.g. of race, place, class, and gender); the emergence of an orthodox medical profession; and the rise of scientific authority in medicine and the home.
Term Two
Events and ideas in Interwar and post-war US medicine, with a particular emphasis on interactions between medicine and politics, ethnicity, race, and gender. This year, the focus will in part be determined by student interests. Thus, we may focus on immigration; medical responses to 'race' and racialised populations; patient activism, patient identities and the end of American medicine’s ‘Golden Age'; medical technologies or drugs; or whether the rise of 'Global Health' is an extension of US hegemony.

Course Aims:

  • To examine the history of medicine in the United States in its wider American context, and through a series of topics and analytical frameworks;
  • To investigate the impact of medical ideas and practices on the development of US society and American identity;
  • To investigate how medicine, health and disease (both at home and abroad) were perceived and addressed at crucial moments in the history of the United States;
    To explore the full range of health practices and social structures which have shaped the emergence of ‘modern’ medicine in the contemporary United States; and
  • To encourage critical investigation and interrogation of ideas of race, gender and class, and of both ‘medicine’ and ‘science’ through primary sources as well as scholarly readings.

Teaching and Learning Methods

Medicine in America will be taught via weekly two-hour seminars. From Week 3, students -- working either individually, or in teams of two -- will lead seminars, using the reading questions as a guide. Discussion leaders will also introduce the week’s required readings (or their selections thereof, when there is a choice of readings) through a 15-20 minute presentation.

Workload and Assessment

Non-assessed assignments:
Students will submit two non-assessed written assignments. Students must write one standard short essay on the topic of their choice, but may choose from the following formats for the remaining essay. Students may also choose to complete a mock examination in Term Two.

  • Review A: 1500 words reviewing a relevant historical volume listed as a background reading, or of your own choice, subject to my approval (which must be obtained in advance!)
  • Primary Source Analyses: 1500 words on a medical source (it could be a journal article/textbook/monograph/image/object), putting it into historical context, and describing its significance to the history of medicine in the Americas. All sources must be approved by me in advance. I’m happy to offer tips on finding a source.
  • Media-in-Context Essay: 1500 words exploring the historical roots of a contemporary medical/public health topic through a source taken from current newpapers/magazines/newswebsites/TV. All sources must be approved by me in advance. I’m happy to offer tips on finding a source (House, Scrubs, or Grey’s Anatomy, anyone?).

One non-assessed assignment must be submitted by Week 8, Term 1; the second must be submitted by week 7 of Term 2. Mock examinations must be submitted by Week 9, Term Two and will be returned by Week 1 of Term 3 for use in exam preparation and discussion in our revision session.


Assessed Work



  • For students NOT linking their dissertations with this module, a 2-hour examination and a 4,500-word essay. [SEE HISTORY DEPARTMENT WEBPAGES FOR DUE DATE]


  • For students linking their dissertation with this module, 1 x 3 hour examination.

Essay titles may be taken from seminar discussion questions, or you may formulate your own title. In either case, you must submit the title to me for approval no later than Term 2, Week 5. I will also make a short list of possible/model topics available on the website by week 5.

Dissertation topics and titles should be discussed with me no later than Week 8 Term 1. Dissertation students will also be invited to attend our dissertation seminar group at dates to be determined in Term 2.

Note that significant overlaps in content between different pieces of work (e.g. between essay topics, between exam answers, or overlaps between assessed essay topics and exam answers) will be penalized.


A Note on Dissertations

Students may choose to write their dissertations in conjunction with this module. If you are thinking about doing this, I strongly encourage you to chat with me about possible topics and approaches early in Term 1 and before you choose your titles, Week 8 Term 1. It’s important for your success (and enjoyment) that your topic draws on the strengths of the Library and the online and local archives, and I can help you to formulate a question that is suitable. I will arrange additional group tutorials for dissertation writers in Term 2, where we can work together to get the most out of your topics. The dissertation is a fantastic and rare opportunity to do independent research on a subject completely tailored to your own interests and strengths – but it does take advanced planning; you should think of it as a year-long process!
For more on the dissertation, go to this link:
Do note that you must choose the correct dissertation module code for this module. A list is available via the page above.