History of Public Health

We aim to explore historical trends in human health and life expectancy and to discuss how public health has evolved over time. To learn the history of a major cause of morbidity and mortality that has declined in importance due to public health efforts, please watch segment 04:30-49:30 of the film “The Forgotten Plague” The significance of tuberculosis in the development of America’s public health system is outlined, as described below:

“By the dawn of the 19th century, the deadliest killer in human history, tuberculosis, had killed one in seven of all the people who had ever lived. The disease struck America with a vengeance, ravaging communities and touching the lives of almost every family. The battle against the deadly bacteria had a profound and lasting impact on the country. It shaped medical and scientific pursuits, social habits, economic development, western expansion, and government policy. Yet both the disease and its impact are poorly understood: in the words of one writer, tuberculosis is our “forgotten plague.”

For students who are interested in history or would like more information on the history of public health, please read the New Yorker article entitled “Sick City.” This article describes the past and current public health threat related to cholera, and highlights how environmental forces, the built environment, the adequacy of water and sanitation systems, and global travel are critical elements shaping our health risks.