'Open air public health propaganda Cinemotor showing public health films and photographs, Bermondsey, 1938. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A Picture of Health: The Mass Media and Public Health in the Twentieth Century

Tutor: Alex Medcalf

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00093M

Credits: 20

What do Superman, Bette Davis and Kylie Minogue all have in common? Each has been used to persuade people to safeguard their health and consider the issues affecting other people. With the advent of new media technologies in the twentieth century public health officials became convinced that mass media had to be used to improve public health. Educating people and keeping them informed about the health situation was seen to play a key role in the enduring fight against disease. People got their information and formed opinions about health from a variety of unofficial sources as well, including popular magazines, films, advertising and television, as well as from official propaganda. There were multiple discourses about what it meant to be healthy, suffer disease, or interact with medical professionals.

This course examines media images of public health in different national contexts (including Britain, Germany, India, the United States, and Australia) across the twentieth century, as well as international strategies. It will explore how and why imagery was produced and disseminated, and how it shaped public opinion. In each session we will study different public health topics through the ‘lens’ of the media. Students will have the opportunity to engage with a variety of source materials including posters, ephemera and photographs and will discuss questions about content, creators, audiences, purpose, and intended versus received meaning.

Seminars may include the following themes:

    • Introduction: key themes and intersections in visual culture and the history of medicine.
    • To Your Health: Public Health Education campaigns, 1900-1939
    • Public Health and Popular Culture
    • Fighting Fit: Public Health Campaigns at War
    • The changing face of public health education: the post-war years
    • “Nurse, the screens!” Doctors and Nurses on television and film
    • The Changing Image of International Health
    • Apocalypse soon – health warning and health panics in the mass media


Preliminary Reading 

    • Berridge, Virginia and Kelly Loughlin. Medicine, the market and the mass media: producing health in the twentieth century. London: Routledge, 2005
    • Gilman, Sander. Health and illness: images of difference. London: Reaktion, 1995
    • Hansen, Bert. Picturing Medical Progress from Pasteur to Polio: A History of Mass Media. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009
    • Ostherr, Kirsten. Medical Visions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 


For more information, please refer to the module catalogue.