COOL CLASSES: “Health and the City”

This first-year writing seminar examines cities as sites of public health concern and intervention in modern history.

Class name: “Health and the City”

Taught by: Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing and Writing Fellow Eli Anders


Here’s what Anders had to say about his class:
“Health and the City” examines how public health has conceptualized cities as sites of particular concern and activity over the past two centuries. Cities have long served as the laboratories in which policymakers, health officials, and social movements generate scientific knowledge about the health of populations and experiment with different strategies for sanitation, public hygiene, and disease control. In this course, we reflect on a series of case studies to consider how social, political, and economic forces shape urban health conditions and policies, and to reflect on the changing meanings of “public health” over the last two hundred years.

There are several ideas and skills that I hope students will take away from the class. First, I want to encourage students to think critically about some of the narratives of uniform and unambiguous progress that often underpin popular histories of public health. The course raises questions about how the boundaries of “public health” have been drawn at various points in history: What constitutes the boundary between health problems of public concern and matters of private responsibility? How do particular urban spaces come to be conceptualized as sites of medical concern while others remain invisible or neglected? How have ideas about race, class, and gender shaped responses to public health crises? Who constitutes “the public” in whose name public health officials operate? Second, I want students to depart with the skills and confidence to analyze and write about historical primary sources and secondary literature.

I developed this course because of my own research interests in the history of medicine and public health, and because of my belief that it is important for students to have a grasp of what it means to think about these topics through a historical lens and with a critical eye. The disciplines of public health and biomedicine hold an incredibly privileged place in our society, and rightly so. But whether students are interested in the humanities or in the health sciences, there are important lessons to be learned from looking at how public health developed as a distinct domain of action, expertise, and authority in the modern era. Discussions about public health are, at their core, about political questions—that is to say, questions about how we should live together as a community. While the successes of public health are often celebrated, its darker moments—in which concerns about health were deployed to exclude immigrants, to justify racial segregation and class discrimination, and to shift attention from broad social and environmental problems to narrow medical ones—are often overlooked. My hope is that students will come away with an understanding of how the practice of public health is inextricable from its political, social, and cultural contexts, and that an understanding of the past is essential to more just and equitable public health futures.


See what other courses the Writing Program is offering this semester.

Photo: “Cholera Map of the Metropolis 1849” Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.