Computer Science (3 Years) [BSc]

From Cholera to Aids: A Global History of Epidemics

Unit code: UCIL20331
Credit Rating: 10
Unit level: Level 2
Teaching period(s): Semester 1
Offered by Centre for History of Science, Technology & Medicine (L5)
Available as a free choice unit?: Y




This course introduces students to the global history of epidemics, starting from the outbreaks of cholera in the 1830s in Asia, Africa, Europe and America to the twenty-first century history of HIV/AIDS and Ebola. It has three main objectives; first, it highlights that the history of global epidemics enables us to understand the wider and deeper social, economic, political and cultural histories that led to disease and mortalities. Second, it helps to identify the local geographic, social and economic contexts of these epidemics. Finally, analyse the experiences of communities and individuals living in the time of epidemics.


This unit can also be taken as a 20 credit version (UCIL 20081).


This course introduces students to the global history of epidemics, starting from the outbreaks of cholera in the 1830s in Asia, Africa, Europe and America to the twenty-first century history of HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

As a history of medicine unit it brings together insights from history, medicine, public health, bacteriology, and economics. It has successfully recruited students from science, humanities and social science backgrounds.

Through a historical perspective the unit investigates why in the contemporary world some countries are relatively free from epidemics while others continue to suffer from these. The unit urges students to identify the larger structural factors, such as economy, trade, labour movements, gender and class that lead to epidemics and to see that disease is often caused by global inequality and poverty.


Teaching and learning methods

11 x 2 hour lectures/seminars


Learning outcomes

  • Analyse the history of epidemics within a global context of movements of people, ideas and commerce

    Understand the complex historical relations between epidemic disease outbreaks and the particular cultural, social and political context

    Understand the everyday experiences of those living in the time of epidemics


Knowledge and understanding

Verbal communication skills are developed in seminars and writing skills in assignments; preparing for seminars and essays uses qualitative research skills and answering questions; initiative is developed through the learning demands of the course; the course requires organisation skills to meet deadlines and to coordinate the different learning resources used; seminars require working as part of group, adapting to different demands and negotiating with other students.


Employability skills

  • Analytical skillsStudents critically examine case studies using primary and secondary literature and analyse the topics covered using both quantitative and qualitative materials
  • Innovation/creativityStudents have the opportunity to be innovative in terms of how they address their essay topic
  • Oral communicationStudents encouraged to take part in discussion of the lecture material during seminar sessions
  • ResearchResearch required for essay and project

Assessment methods

  • Written exam - 50%
  • Written assignment (inc essay) - 50%


Lecture Content

Lectures form a connected series of explorations across the history of epidemics and follow the case study principle

Week 1    Globalization and Disease


Week 2    

Asiatic Cholera in Europe      

What caused Cholera? Germs, poverty or global trade?

Week 3    

The Rise of Quarantine          

What defined the origin of the modern quarantine system; the threat of disease or imperial trade?  

Week 4    

Germs, Parasites and Humans

Were modern public health measures,, which were based on Germ theory, intrusive or beneficial?

Week 5

Epidemics and Human Lives

Can epidemics reflect stories of everyday lives? 

Week 6

Reading Week

Week 7

The Making of Modern Malaria

How is ‘development’ linked to the problem of malaria? 

Week 8

Yellow fever in the Americas 

Can you compare cholera with yellow fever, using common reference points such as trade/imperialism, Panama/Suez, sanitarianism/public health, etc? 

Week 9

Smallpox: From Variolation to Global Eradication

What is the secret behind the eradication of smallpox? 

Week 10

AIDS, Ebola and the Return of the Plagues

With AIDS and Ebola, are we revisiting nineteenth-century paradigms of disease, or charting new territories? 

Week 11

Global Poverty and Disease

Does ‘Acephie’s story’ help us to understand the link between structural violence and disease? 

Week 12

Epidemics Now: Cholera in Yemen

Exam preparation

Recommended reading

  • Hamlin, Christopher, Cholera: The Biography, Oxford 2009 (compulsory)
  • Farmer, Paul, Infections and Inequalities. The Modern Plagues, London 1999 (background)
  • Chakrabarti, Pratik, Medicine and Empire: 1600-1960, Palgrave, 2014


Feedback methods

Students may ask questions at any time during lectures and seminars. Teaching staff will answer specific queries by email and during office hours, and will provide contact details in the course handbook or at lectures. All submitted coursework will be returned with annotations and an assessment sheet explaining the mark awarded.


Study hours

  • Assessment written exam - 2 hours
  • Lectures - 11 hours
  • Seminars - 11 hours
  • Independent study hours - 76 hours

Teaching staff

Pratik Chakrabarti - Unit coordinator

▲ Up to the top