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From Cholera to COVID-19: A Global History of Epidemics

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM20081
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This unit explores how infectious diseases have spread across the globe and how different societies throughout history have lived and dies with them. We look at key epidemic diseases from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from cholera and smallpox, to AIDS and Ebola, to our most recent global pandemic, COVID-19.

We ask how and why such pandemics emerge and why some countries and communities are relatively free from epidemic disease while others continue to suffer form them. We explore how various communities, institutions, and governments across the globe have sought to manage pandemics through a variety of means, from controlling immigration and enacting quarantines, to developing scientific solutions like vaccinations and eradication campaigns. We will also explore recurring features of pandemics such as blame, stigma, and the rise of conspiracy theories.

To address these issues, we look at the historical development of factors such as globalisation, colonialism, science and medicine, gender, class and race to better understand the broader structural factors that allow for epidemics to emerge and spread both historically and in the present day.


Drawing on our contemporary experiences of COVID-19 this unit looks back into the history of global pandemics and enables you to understand how and why epidemic diseases emerge, paying particular attention to the historical social, economic, political, and cultural factors that have led to epidemics. The unit aims to:

  • Explore how and why different countries have responded to infectious disease outbreaks in different ways from the nineteenth century to the present day.
  • Analyse the experiences of communities and individuals living in the time of epidemics to better understand why certain features of epidemics (blame, stigma, conspiracy) seem to emerge time and again.
  • Help us better understand the historical roots of our recent experience with COVID-19 and help us to think about how we might better prepare for future pandemics.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this unit, students should have acquired a knowledge of the history of epidemic disease from the nineteenth century to the present day and understand the role of historical factors such as globalisation and colonialism in the emergence of epidemics across the period. They will have gained experience and confidence in analysing the experience of people living through epidemics through using a variety of historical primary resources. They will also have developed oral and written communication skills through classroom activities and coursework.


Content may vary from year to year in reponse to contemporary events and student interest, but will typically address the following broad topics:

  • COVID-19 and the Global History of Pandemics
  • The Global Pandemic of Asiatic Cholera
  • Quarantine and Isolation
  • The Asymptomatic Carrier
  • Living in Quarantine
  • The Making of Modern Malaria
  • Smallpox and Strategies of Eradication
  • AIDS, Ebola and the Return of Plagues
  • Jumping Species, Jumping Borders: Zoonotic Disease in the Twenty-first Century
  • The New Normal? Life after COVID-19

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching is delivered through 11 x 2-hour lectures/seminars across the semester. Lectures introduce students to the week's topic, and key approaches to understanding these drawn from relevant academic disciplines i.e. History, social studies, anthropology etc. Lectures will regularly make use of digital teaching and learning tools such as Padlet and Mentimeter, increasing students' digital capabilities as well as fostering greater interactivity. Seminars provide the opportunity to explore the topics in greater depth through engagement with required course material; this material will usually be a piece of academic literature, short video or podcast, or a selection of primary historical source. All available via the VLE. Students are encouraged to meet with teaching staff to discuss coursework or other aspects of their study on the unit.

Knowledge and understanding

Students should be able to:

  • Discuss how and why specific historical epidemics emerged and spread, demonstrating understanding of the role that wider historical factors such as globalisation and colonialisation played in the emergence of global epidemics.
  • Apply appropriate disciplinary knowledge and approaches from global history to analyse the emergence and experience of epidemics.
  • Explain how understanding the history of epidemics can help us to better prepare for or manage contemporary or future epidemics.
  • Demonstrate detailed understanding of a particular epidemic or theme through researching and writing their own project essay.  

Intellectual skills

Students should be able to:

  • Critically analyse a range of primary sources to gain understanding of how various communities and individuals experiences epidemic disease in the past.
  • Debate and discuss with peers to propose solutions to problems emerging alongside epidemic disease.
  • Form an opinion supported by research on how understanding history can help prepare for future epidemics and communicate this in writing.
  • Develop historical research skills by preparing and completing a project essay. 

Practical skills

Students should be able to:

  • Use library, electronic and other online resources.
  • Critically analyse a range of primary sources.
  • Work independently and in groups with peers.
  • Demonstrate confidence in own opinions.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Should be able to:

  • Demonstrate verbal communication skills through discussion and thoughtful debate while working as part of a group.
  • Demonstrate written communication skills encompassing a range of different writing skills, from academic writing, to more creative, journalistic style writing.
  • Use creative and critical thinking to form and support opinions backed by research on a range of subjects.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students critically examine case studies using primary and secondary literature and analyse the topics covered using both quantitative and qualitiative materials.
Students have the opportunity to be innovative and creative in terms of how they conceptualise and present their coursework.
Oral communication
Students are encouraged to take part in discussion of the lecture material during seminar sessions.
Independant research skills are required for all coursework components.

Assessment methods

Academic Essay or Role Play Writing 25%

Project Essay 50%

Opinion Piece 25%

Feedback methods

Students will receive verbal feedback on contributions to seminar discussion in class. Summative feedback will be given on coursework assignments via the VLE. Teaching staff will be available to give additional feedback on class participation or coursework via email and during office hours (contact details and schedules will be posted in the course handbook and on the VLE). Students will be encouraged to meet with teaching staff to discuss coursework or other aspects of their studies that require attention.

Students will have the opportunity to give iterative feedback on the unit via informal surveys and use of anonymous feedback tools at key points in the course. Students will be asked to fill in a formal unit evaluation survey on completion of the course.


Recommended reading

  • Bashford, Alison, Quarantine: Local and Global Histories (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016)
  • Chakrabarti, Pratik, Medicine and Empire: 1600-1960 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
  • Charters, Erica and Koen, Vermeir (eds), Centaurus Spotlight Issue: Histories of epidemics in the time of COVID-19, Vol. 62, Iss.2 (May 2020): 219-280
  • Harrison, Mark, Contagion: How Commerce Has Spread Disease (Yale University Press, 2013)
  • Wald, Priscilla, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative, 1st edition(Duke University Press Books, 2008)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 178

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Harriet Palfreyman Unit coordinator

Additional notes

HSTM units are designed to be accessible to all undergraduate students from all disciplines. They assume no prior experience.

The HSTM portfolio offers a range of 'free choice' units, see The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Undergraduate teaching for further information. Led by experienced researchers, our teaching explores science as part of humanb culture, demonstrating that history is a valuable tool for understanding the present state and possible future of science, technology and medicine.

If you are unsure whether you are able to enrol on any of the HSTM units you should contact your School Programme and Curriculum team. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a HSTM unit.

You can also contact the Academic Lead for Undergraduate teaching at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

This unit is offered in both 10-credit and 20-credit versions to meet the requirements of different programme structures across the University. Students will be able to choose the version appropriate to their programme.

10 credit - HSTM20031

20 credit - HSTM20081