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The History of Medicine and Public Health in the U.S., led by Jim Downs, Gettysburg College

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This interdisciplinary course has two objectives: first, to investigate the various ways that the medical profession, patients, and the state narrate illness; second, to chart the history of medicine and public health, paying particular attention to the changing roles of doctors, the history of disease causation, and how these two phenomena overlap, especially in the mid to late nineteenth century. Drawing heavily on primary sources, the course begins with an overview of the history of medicine from the colonial period to the present in the United States, covering a range of subjects from outbreaks of yellow fever and smallpox to tuberculosis and HIV. Special attention will be given to how biosocial factors, namely racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia, shape both the outbreak and outcome of these epidemics.

After developing this foundation, the second half of the course will draw on work of medical anthropologists and medical humanities scholars to probe the theoretical and conceptual understandings of how biomedical and rhetorical frameworks make disease visible, and how physicians, the state, and patients each develop their own narratives to explain disease. While the first half of the course will be situated mostly in the U.S. and Europe, the readings from the second half of the course will include case studies from Africa, Asia, and South America.


  • Twelve lectures
  • Primary source readings that supplement the lectures
  • A certificate of completion for 15 hours of professional development credit

Readings:The optional readings for each seminar session are listed in the Resources tab on the course page. Please note that you are not required to read or purchase any print materials. Quizzes are based on the lectures.

Course Access: After your purchase, you may access your course by signing into the Gilder Lehrman website and clicking on the MY COURSES link in the navigation menu.

Questions? Please view our FAQs page or email selfpacedcourses@gilderlehrman.org.


Jim Downs is the Gilder Lehrman-National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Civil War Era Studies and History, at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Sick From Freedom: African American Sickness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford UP, 2012), Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation (Basic Books, 2016) and Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine (Harvard UP, 2021).