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Disease - HIS00097H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Sethina Watson
  • Credit value: 40 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

From ’flu to plague, cholera ebola and Covid, diseases are the most mundane of human experiences and the most catastrophic. Scholars speak of the long history of human societies in terms of environment, microbes, and technology (‘guns, germs and steel’); this module explores all three, and more, via the dislocations that produce ill health and the systems that respond. If this offers a ‘big history’ of humanity, it also asks for close study of different societies, for illness (leprosy, the pox, tuberculosis, Spanish flu, polio, HIV/AIDS, dementia) could shape an era and its institutions, defining who was excluded and who embraced. The language of illness also offers a pervasive and powerful rhetoric, with all kinds of behaviour described as “sick” or as producing ill health in certain social groups. To study disease is to explore how society distinguished the normal from the abnormal, and the pathological.

The module approaches disease in two units: ‘epidemics’ and ‘diagnosis’. Behind both are three contrasting perspectives on disease in history: the epidemiological, the social and the cultural. The first thinks about the movement of diseases in populations; how has the high mortality of plague, smallpox or tuberculosis restructured economies or global politics? The second investigates social, governmental and medical responses to ill health including quarantine and public health policy, paying particular attention to questions of power, conflict, and colonialism. Finally, many diseases have had powerful psycho-cultural dimensions, because of frightening symptoms (cholera, ebola), apocalyptic threat (bubonic plague, SARS) or the cultural significance attributed to them (leprosy, syphilis, cancer), especially when aspects of the human condition have been diagnosed as sickness (addiction, emotion, sexualities). Throughout we notice how diagnosis defines not only what is pathological, but also the patient; it is intertwined with how society articulates morality and how it marks out gender, race, sexuality, class, and so identity itself.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2022-23 to Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to the practice of comparative history;
  • To enable students to acquire skills and understanding of that practice by studying a particular topic or theme; and
  • To enable students to reflect on the possibilities and difficulties involved in comparative history

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp the key approaches and challenges involved in comparative history;
  • Understand a range of aspects of the topic or theme which they have studied;
  • Be able to use and evaluate comparative approaches to that topic or theme; and
  • Have learned to discuss and write about comparative history
  • Have developed skills in group work

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 of the autumn term. Students prepare for and participate in fifteen three-hour seminars. These take place in weeks 2-5 and 7-9 of the autumn term and weeks 2-5 and 7-10 of the spring term. Both the autumn and spring terms include a reading week for final year students and so there will be no teaching in week 6. There will also be a 2 hour revision session in the summer term.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

Autumn Term

  1. Can diseases have a history?

  2. Spanish flu (1918/19)

  3. Epidemic Disaster: The Black Death

  4. Plagues in History

  5. Thinking ‘plague’

  6. The State and Disease Control

  7. Contagion

Spring Term

  1. Sex and Disease

  2. Pollution: Lepers and outcasts

  3. Framing Disease

  4. Whose disease? Doctor and patient

  5. Culture clash: diagnosis and authority

  6. Social Construction of Disease

  7. Institutions and Regimen

  8. Visualisation


Task Length % of module mark
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
Open Exam - 24 hours
N/A 67
University - project
Group Project
N/A 33

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For procedural work, the students will make group presentations towards the end of the autumn term. In addition, they may choose to submit an optional 2,000 word formative essay between weeks 7-9 of the autumn term. Essays should not be submitted in the same week as group project presentations are scheduled.

For summative assessment students will complete a 4,000-word group project due in week 6 of the spring term -- this will account for 33% of the final mark. They will then also take a 2,000-word 24-hour open exam during the common assessment period in the summer term, usually released at 11:00 on day 1 and submitted at 11:00 on day 2. The open exam will be worth 67% of the final mark.


Task Length % of module mark
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
Open Exam - 24 hours
N/A 67
University - project
Group Project
N/A 33

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will typically receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their discussion groups and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work with their tutor (or module convenor) during 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:

Monica Green, ed. Pandemic disease in the Medieval world: rethinking the Black Death. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2019.

Richard McKay. Patient zero and the making of the AIDS epidemic. Chicago: University Press, 2017.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1979, repr. 1983.

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.