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Designs for Life: Health Education Campaigns in Britain, 1900-1980 - HIS00079C

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Alexander Medcalf
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20

Module summary

The twentieth century was an age of mass persuasion. Newspapers, radio, cinema, and later television helped carry the voices and opinions of individuals to millions, who often consumed these messages simultaneously. Governments used propaganda to advance political interests and help wage wars, whilst advertisers used increasingly sophisticated techniques to sway people about how to spend their leisure time and income. These developments greatly interested public health professionals, who wondered whether the same techniques could be used to improve health?

Although in Britain health problems associated with poor housing, water and sewerage systems had lessened by 1900, those responsible for designing health education believed that campaigns could make a vital contribution to improving hygiene, help prevent accidents, warn people about the dangers of alcohol, and make bodies ‘fighting fit’.  When, at mid-century, the rise of chronic diseases presented new public health challenges, the need to influence and direct individual behaviour further elevated the importance of education campaigns. Making use of concurrent developments in the field of mass media, using posters, leaflets, films and exhibitions, health education expanded rapidly and assumed increasing prominence.

The successful use of health education materials was not, however, straightforward and posed a number of vexing questions. Just how could people’s beliefs and behaviours be changed? How should different audiences or segments within the population be approached? Who should be responsible for health education? What designs and methods worked best and how could their effects be assessed? What could health education do to mitigate the effects of advertisements and popular media which encouraged unhealthy behaviours? 

This module will examine how and why British health education changed across the period in question. It will survey the theories and attitudes of those responsible for creating campaign materials, as well as their reception by the public. Students will assess how historians have used health education materials to deepen our understandings of health and society in twentieth century Britain. This module also provides opportunities to research a diverse range of primary sources, and to hone different analytical skills and approaches. 

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2019-20

Module aims

Module Aims:
The aims of this module are:

  • To give an intensive introduction to an unfamiliar period and/or approach to the study of history;

  • To offer experience in the use of primary source materials;

  • To develop skills in analysing historiography; and

  • To develop core skills such as: bibliographical search techniques; source analysis; essay writing; giving presentations; and, undertaking independent research.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Acquire an insight into historical study of an unfamiliar period and/or approach to the study of history through intensive study of an aspect of the period and/or an approach to it;
  • Gain experience of analysing primary source materials; inter alia, government documents, legal treaties and judgements, trade statistics, and insider accounts.
  • Be able to evaluate an historical explanation;
  • Have practiced core skills identified in the Autumn Term Making Histories module, including historical analysis, note-taking, essay writing, presenting to groups, and leading discussions in seminars: and,
  • Have delivered advanced level historical work in essays, demonstrating a thorough understanding of the module topics.

Module content

Teaching will be in weekly 2-hour seminars taught over eight weeks. Each week students will do reading and preparation in order to be able to contribute to discussion.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

1. The rise of health education

2. Making healthy bodies ‘fighting fit’

3. The public versus the microbe: combating disease with health education 

4. Health on the film screen

5. Competing for attention: how did popular media cover health?

6. The poster: propaganda for good health?

7. Don’t! The origins and impact of anti-tobacco and alcohol campaigns

8. Knowing the public: how successful was health education?   



Task Length % of module mark
2,000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

During the autumn term students will be tasked with finding and researching their own primary source or sources in pairs or small groups, on which they will give a group presentation for formative assessment in one or more sessions during weeks 4-7.

Students will then submit 2,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 10.


Task Length % of module mark
2,000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

The formative assessment is a group presentation and verbal feedback will be provided by the tutor in class followed by a written summary to each student within 10 working days. Students will have a 15 minute one-to-one tutorial to discuss the formative assessment and prepare for the summative assessment. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement on Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Should you wish to do any preliminary reading, you could look at the following:

  • Jones, Helen. Health and society in Twentieth-century Britain. London: Longman, 1994.

  • Bonah, Christian, David Cantor, and Anja Laukötter, ed. Health education films in the twentieth century. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2018.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.

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