HIST 3907A: A Transnational History: Cultural History of Disease
Winter 2021

Instructor: Dr. Lori Jones

cartoon of a snake chasing a woman holding a baby

Cartoon from a December 1894 anti-vaccination publication. Courtesy of The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

This thematically-organized, cross-national (i.e., not-Eurocentric) and cross-temporal (i.e., ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern) course explores our long historical relationship with disease, and how those relationships have been shaped by particular cultural contexts. Beginning with the challenges that historians face in trying to assign labels to past diseases, we will touch upon many of the cultural aspects of disease, including but not limited to: how explanations and understandings of different diseases have changed over time; how and why some diseases assume identities; the relationship between fear/loathing of strangers and fear/loathing of disease; how and why diseases become ‘fashionable’ in particular places and times; the arts & disease; medical fads; clothing and disease; associations between our five senses and disease; how differently-abled people experience disease differently. The course will include a focus on the analysis of primary sources, including texts, images, and objects.

Course Goals: To enable students to

  1. Think critically about beliefs, knowledge, and practices related to disease, from antiquity to the recent past.
  2. Examine the ways in which health and disease were conceptualized in the past, and to understand some of the major shifts in medical knowledge and healing practices in the context of the broader historical and cultural changes.
  3. Consider how the cultural contexts within which beliefs, knowledge, and practices related to disease were developed, transmitted, debated, and adapted impacted on societies.

Course Objectives: By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Critically analyze and discuss the concept of “disease as an idea”
  • Recognize the inter-relationship of culture, ideas, and medical beliefs and practices
  • Identify some of the ways in which race, class, and gender have impacted concepts of disease over time
  • Work with and analyze primary sources relating to the history of medicine, health, and disease

Course Materials

There is no single textbook for this course. Instead, I will mostly assign readings from journal articles and other sources that that you can access from the library. There will likely also be podcast and short online films to watch.


This course has one three-hour class comprised of short lectures, class discussion, primary source analysis, and interactive activities. If the class ends up being taught on-line, short lectures (20-30 minutes long) will be uploaded each week for you to watch in your own time, along with discussion questions, questions about the readings (primary and secondary sources), and some type of interactive activity. Active participation is required to do well in this course, whether in person or online. To encourage you to keep up with the lectures, discussions, and readings, there will be a number of short tests throughout the term.


There are several graded components to the coursework:

  1. Class participation
  2. Tests: periodic tests on the course material and the corresponding readings
  3. Interactive activities
  4. A written essay or equivalent (podcast, artwork, blog series) that includes a primary source analysis.

There is no final exam for this course, as the essay or equivalent is meant to demonstrate your understanding of the course’s main themes.


If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at: lori.jones@carleton.ca