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Thinking historically about public health
  1. Alison Bashford1,
  2. Carolyn Strange2
  1. 1
    Department of History, University of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  2. 2
    Research School of Humanities, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
  1. Associate Professor Alison Bashford, Department of History, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia; Alison.bashford{at}


This paper argues that analysing past public health policies calls for scholarship that integrates insights not just from medical history but from a broad range of historical fields. Recent studies of historic infectious disease management make this evident: they confirm that prior practices inhere in current perceptions and policies, which, like their antecedents, unfold amidst shifting amalgams of politics, culture, law and economics. Thus, explaining public health policy of the past purely in medical or epidemiological terms ignores evidence that it was rarely, if ever, designed solely on medical grounds at the time.

  • Medical history
  • law
  • infectious disease
  • nationalism
  • public health
  • colonialism

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Support received from the Australian Research Council

  • iFor the purposes of this article, we focus on the infectious disease management aspect of public health.

  • Abbreviation:
    severe acute respiratory syndrome