History of Public Health
- LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0008
- LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2015
- LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0008
The history of public health is dynamic and being generated on a constant basis. Diseases have provided the stimulus for much of the activity in public health. In a handful of instances, overcoming a disease has removed a barrier to commerce or another desired goal. For example, overcoming yellow fever facilitated construction of the Panama Canal in the early 1900s, and finding a cure for scurvy allowed mariners to make longer voyages of exploration. It is important to note that advances in public health usually have impacts on people throughout the world and that public health is an international effort. Public health researchers are focusing on heart disease and type 2 diabetes in response to contemporary epidemics. Efforts to understand and cure diseases have had the unintended consequences of developing tools. The science of epidemiology emerged from efforts to stop cholera in England. In addition, forces other than disease have affected public health. Examples include the sanitary movement that began in England and was quickly duplicated in a new England (mid-1800s), social concerns that reformers used to promote mandatory schooling for children as a way to stop child labor in factories (mid-1800s), and concern for wholesome food (late 1800s). A small number of diseases have had a disproportionate impact on the history of public health throughout the world. These include smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis (TB), and HIV/AIDS. The first three diseases have been known since antiquity; HIV/AIDS is a more recent problem. Smallpox is noteworthy for its mortality rate and because it is the only disease that has been eradicated. Influenza became a human disease after individuals domesticated pigs. Because influenza mutates so readily, it continues to challenge public health planners. In periodic pandemics, influenza kills many people. Tuberculosis, like influenza, migrated to humans after cattle were domesticated. TB is a concern for public health for at least two reasons. Experts estimate that one person in three carries the TB pathogen. Because the length of time required to treat TB is long (months), most strains of TB have developed drug resistance. Finally, as of 2010, HIV/AIDS has caused more than 40 million deaths. With the exception of HIV/AIDS, vaccines have been developed for these diseases. The smallpox vaccine provided the means for eradication, whereas influenza mutates so readily that the vaccine must be frequently revised. A vaccine for TB is also available, because it is not effective in all recipients, it is not used in the United States as a matter of public health policy.
Several books have been written about the history of public health. Each emphasizes a different aspect of public health, reflecting the background and interests of the authors. Mullan 1989 wrote an extensive history of the US Public Health Service. Duffy 1992 was the first historian to analyze the work of sanitarians. The history of public health in Rosen 1993 is comprehensive through its original publication date (1953); the expanded edition features a new introduction by Elizabeth Fee. Porter 1999 provides a much longer historical time frame that is international in scope. Fee, et al. 2002 began a series of articles that add to the history of public health, and Warner and Tighe 2006 shows links between clinical medicine and public health. Schneider and Lilienfeld 2008 is a comprehensive but brief history of public health, whereas Ravenel 2010 is a history of public health in the United States that has been republished. The latter was complete through the original date of publication in 1921.
Duffy, John. 1992. The sanitarians: A history of American public health. Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Press.
This history of public health focuses on public health from the perspective of the tasks and responsibilities that grew out of the sanitary movement that began in the mid-1800s. These encompass water quality, safe disposal of wastes, air quality, and environmental cleanliness.
Fee, Elizabeth, Theodore M. Brown, Jan Lazarus, and Paul Atheerman. 2002. The tooth puller (L’arracheur de dents). American Journal of Public Health 92.1: 35.
This is the first of a series of occasional pieces called “Voices from the Past” written by Elizabeth Fee and colleagues. The author provides biographical material about individuals that have had an impact on the history of public health. The writing is outstanding. As of 2010, the series continues. Available online for purchase or by subscription.
Mullan, Fitzhugh. 1989. Plagues and politics: The story of the United States Public Health Service. New York: Basic Books.
This book provides a comprehensive history of public health from its founding in 1799 to 1989. The author notes that the Public Health Service (PHS) has become the primary health agency of the federal government. He also notes that the PHS has played a role in most health initiatives in which the United States has become involved. Although well known for its epidemiological studies, the PHS has conducted or collaborated with research on diseases and treatments. Throughout is history, the PHS has been an advocate for improving health for people throughout the world.
Porter, Dorothy. 1999. Health, civilization and the state: A history of public health from ancient to modern times. New York: Routledge.
This history of public health covers a longer time span, beginning before public health was formally recognized. The author is an historian with training in public health. The coverage is reasonably complete.
Ravenel, Mazÿck. 2010. A half century of public health. Memphis: General.
Mazÿck provides a comprehensive history of the origins of public health in the United States from 1870 to 1920. The beginning reflects the advent of a uniformed professional service employing individuals based on their training, credentials, and examinations. The last major episode in the book is a description of the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919 and the role assumed by the Public Health Service. The book was originally published by the American Public Health Association in 1921.
Rosen, George. 1993. A history of public health, expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.
This is a revised edition of a public health classic. It traces the history of public health by focusing on epidemiology, disease surveillance, and disease eradication. The book was originally published in 1953. Elizabeth Fee, Chief of the History of Medicine Division for the National Library of Medicine, wrote an introductory commentary for this expanded (1993) edition.
Schneider, Dona, and David E. Lilienfeld. 2008. Public health: The development of a discipline, from the age of Hippocrates to the Progressive Era. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.
The authors of this most recent history of public health attempt to be all inclusive. They succeed but at the cost of brevity for many interesting eras in public health. In general, the coverage in the book is reasonably balanced.
Warner, John H., and Janet A. Tighe. 2006. Major problems in the history of American medicine and public health: Documents and essays. Major Problems in American History Series. Florence, KY: Wadsworth.
The authors note that the histories of clinical medicine and public health are intertwined. They devote more pages to the history of medicine than public health. However, their coverage of public health is succinct.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Access to Health Care
- Action Research
- Active Aging
- Active Living
- Adolescent Risk-Taking Behavior in the United States
- Advocacy, Public Health
- Agricultural Safety and Public Health
- Air Quality: Health Effects
- Air Quality: Indoor Health Effects
- Alcohol Availability and Violence
- Alternative Research Designs
- Ambient Air Quality Standards and Guidelines
- American Perspectives on Chronic Disease and Control
- Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR)
- Asthma in Children
- Attachment as a Health Determinant
- Behavior Change Theory in Health Education and Promotion
- Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance
- Bicycling and Cycling Safety
- Birth and Death Registration
- Birth Cohort Studies
- Board of Health
- Built Environment and Health, The
- Business and Corporate Practices
- Cancer Communication Strategies in North America
- Cancer Prevention
- Cancer Screening
- Capacity Building
- Capacity Building for NCDs in LMICs
- Capacity-Building for Applied Public Health in LMIC: A US ...
- Cardiovascular Health and Disease
- Child Maltreatment
- Children, Air Pollution and
- Children, Injury Risk-Taking Behaviors in
- Children, Obesity in
- Citizen Advisory Boards
- Climate Change and Human Health
- Climate Change: Institutional Response
- Clinical Preventive Medicine
- Community Air Pollution
- Community Development
- Community Gardens
- Community Health Assessment
- Community Partnerships and Coalitions
- Community-Based Participatory Research
- Complexity and Systems Theory
- Definition of Health
- Dental Public Health
- Design and Health
- Dietary Guidelines
- Ecological Approaches
- Enabling Factors
- Environmental Laws
- Environmental Protection Agency
- Ethics of Public Health
- Evidence-Based Public Health Practice
- Family Planning Services and Birth Control
- Food Safety
- Food Security and Food Banks
- Food Systems
- Frail Elderly
- Functional Literacy
- Genomics, Public Health
- Geographic Information Systems
- Geography and Health
- Global Health
- Global Health Diplomacy
- Global Health Promotion
- Guide to Community Preventive Services, The
- Health Administration
- Health Communication
- Health Disparities
- Health Education
- Health Impact Assessment
- Health in All Policies
- Health in All Policies in European Countries
- Health Literacy
- Health Literacy and Non-Communicable Diseases
- Health Measurement Scales
- Health Planning
- Health Promoting Hospitals
- Health Promotion
- Health Promotion Workforce Capacity
- Healthy People Initiative
- Hepatitis C
- High Risk Prevention Strategies
- Human Rights, Health and
- Immigrant Populations
- Immunization and Pneumococcal Infection
- Indigenous Peoples, Public Health and
- Indigenous Populations of North America, Australasia, and ...
- Indoor Air Quality Guidelines
- Internet Applications in Promoting Health Behavior
- Intersectoral Strategies in Low - Middle Income Countries ...
- Justice, Social
- Knowledge Translation and Exchange
- Knowledge Utilization and Exchange
- Law of Public Health in the United States
- Media Advocacy
- Mental Health
- Mental Health Promotion
- Migrant Health
- Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention
- Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis
- National Association of Local Boards of Health
- National Public Health Institutions
- Needs Assessment
- Obesity Prevention
- Occupational Cancers
- Occupational Safety and Health
- Ottawa Charter
- Parenting and Work
- Parenting Skills and Capacity
- Participatory Action Research
- Patient Decision Making
- Pesticide Exposure and Pesticide Health Effects
- Physical Activity and Exercise
- Physical Activity Promotion
- Polio Eradication in Pakistan
- Population Aging
- Population Determinants of Unhealthy Foods and Beverages
- Population Health Objectives and Targets
- Precautionary Principle
- Prenatal Health
- Program Evaluation in American Health Education
- Program Planning and Evaluation
- Public Health, History of
- Public Health Surveillance
- Public-Private Partnerships in Public Health Research and ...
- Public-Private Partnerships to Prevent and Manage Obesity ...
- Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment
- Radiological and Nuclear Emergencies
- Randomized Controlled Trials
- Real World Evaluation Strategies
- Reducing Obesity-Related Health Disparities in Hispanic an...
- Rural Health in the United States
- Safety, Patient
- Sex Education in HIV/AIDS Prevention
- Skin Cancer Prevention
- Smoking Cessation
- Social Determinants of Health
- Social Epidemiology
- Social Marketing
- Statistics in Public Health
- Systems in the United States, Public Health
- Systems Theory in Public Health
- Traditional, Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative M...
- Translation of Science to Practice and Policy
- Traumatic Stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Tuberculosis among Adults and the Determinants of Health
- Unintentional Injury Prevention
- Urban Health
- Vaccine Hesitancy
- Violence Prevention
- Water Quality
- Water Quality and Water-Related Disease
- Weight Management in US Occupational Settings
- Worksite Health Promotion