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A Picture of Health: The Mass Media & Public Health in the Twentieth Century - HIS00093M

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

Module summary

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.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After successfully completing this course students should:

  • Understand the key differences between, and be able to critique, methods and approaches to using visual sources as part of historical analysis.
  • Be able to identify key primary sources and collections.
  • Appreciate how historians medicine have used visual sources to explore different issues connected to public health across the twentieth century.
  • Be familiar with the technologies and approaches used in visualising health, and the role of prominent groups such as public health educators, international organizations, advertisers and charities in this representation.

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

Seminars may include the following themes:

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


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 Words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000 word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in week 6 of the spring term. They will then submit a 4,000 word assessed essay in week 1 of the summer term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 4000 Words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. 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 of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of 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.

In preparation for this course students are encouraged to explore the online Wellcome Images collection and the World Health Organization’s Image Library.

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.