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Week 9: Policing the public health: The Birth of Biopower

Medicine in the Service of the Eighteenth-Century State

Lecturer: Dr Claudia Stein


This lecture and seminar investigates the history of public health, the science of protecting and improving the health of communities through education, promotion of healthy lifestyles, and research for disease and injury prevention. It is often assumed that these concerns are largely a nineteenth-century preoccupation. However, this lecture/seminar will show that public health’s most central concern – the care for the well-being of individuals AND populations – is rooted in ideas and practices that began to take shape in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. In this period, European states moved towards new ideas and practices, linking the health of individuals and populations within their territorial systems to economic and political security. ‘Public health’ (as it would come to be known in the nineteenth century), sexuality, and concerns with the wellbeing and longevity of individuals became the target in relation to the collective prosperity of the political whole. The French philosopher Michel Foucault labeled this new form of governance -- focused on the biological functions of the individual and populations -- biopower.

In the German-speaking territories this development was particularly pronounced, attached as it was to the then emergent ‘science of government’ known as ‘cameralism’ (the German counterpart of French 'mercantilism'). Cameralism, which was as much an economic theory as a political practice, aimed at mobilising all the available resources of a territory and its population in the service of a common good. Thus it concentrated on the growth of economic production and demanded a strong productive work force. The establishment of an apparatus that would ensure the subjection of the productive individual and the population as a whole was a central concern.For this, as well as for the ‘happiness’ of the fatherland, the practice of medicine and ‘public health’ were crucial and all over the German lands, rulers set up systems of ‘medical police’ (medicinische Policey)


Discussion Questions/Essay Topics:

  1. Why is it important to look at the 17th and 18th century if one works on public health?
  2. What is meant by 'biopower'?
  3. Statistics was central to the creation of a population. Discuss.
  4. The history of public health is about great doctors and efficient administrators. Discuss.

Required Readings:

Foucault, Michel, ‘The Birth of Social Medicine’, in idem, Power, J.D. Faubion (ed.), (New York: The New Press, 2000), pp. 134-156. (version online on: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/cogn_150/Readings/foucault/social_medicine/foucault_birth.pdf )

Rosen, George (1953), ‘Cameralism and the Concept of Medical Police’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 27 (1953): 21-42 (e-journal)

Rusnock, Andrea A., ‘Biopolitics: Political Arithmetic in the Enlightenment’, in W. Clark, Jan Golinsko, and S. Schaffer (eds), The Sciences in Enlightened Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1999), pp. 49-68. (course extract)


Further Readings:

Broman, Thomas, The Transformation of German Academic Medicine, 1750-1820 (Cambridge, 1996) (Warwick Library)

Carroll, Patrick E., ‘Medical Police and the History of Public Health’, Medical History 46 (2002): 461-493 (online)

Foucault, Michel, ‘The Politics of Health in the Eighteenth Century’, In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 ed. By Colin Gordon (New York, 1980), pp. 166-186. (online)

Ibid, ‘The Birth of Biopolitics’; ‘Security, Territory and Population’; On the Government of Living’, in Paul Rabinow (ed.), The Essential Works of Foucault, 1954-1984, vol. 1: Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (New York, 1997), pp. 51-86. (online: http://asounder.org/resources/foucault_biopolitics.pdf )

Hardy, Anne/Magnello Eileen (eds), The Road to Medical Statistics (Amsterdam, 2002).

Lindemann, Mary, Health and Healing in the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996). (Warwick Library)

Petersen, Alan/Bunton, Robin (eds.), Foucault, Health and Medicine (London, 1997). (Warwick Library)

Rusnock, Andrea A., Vital Health: Quantifying Health and Population in Eighteenth-Century England and France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) (Warwick Library)

Stein, Claudia, ‘The Birth of Biopower in Eighteenth-Century Germany’, Medical History 55 (2011): 331-337. (online)

Keith Tribe, Governing Economy: The Reformation of German Academic Discourse (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1988). (Warwick Library)

Vierhaus, Rudolf, Germany in the Age of Absolutism (Cambridge, 1988) (Warwick library)

Andre Wakefield, The Disordered Police State: German Cameralism as Science and Practice (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009).