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University College for Interdisciplinary Learning

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

Course Unit Code

UCIL20331 (10 Credits)

UCIL20081 (20 Credits)

Course Unit Details

  • Level 2
  • Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine


Including the recent experiences of the COVID-19 outbreak, students will learn how historically infectious diseases have spread across the world, how people, health systems and governments have reacted to these, and what lessons can be learnt from global pandemics in the past.

This unit covers the global history of epidemics, starting from the global pandemic of cholera in the nineteenth century across Asia, Africa, Europe and America to the contemporary experiences of COVID-19 and Ebola. It brings together insights from history, medicine, public health, bacteriology, and quarantine.

You will investigate why, in the contemporary world, some countries and communities are relatively free from epidemics while others continue to suffer from them. You will identify the larger structural factors, such as the economy, trade, labour movements, gender and class that lead to epidemics and see that disease is often caused by global inequality and poverty.


Drawing from the contemporary experiences of COVID-19, this unit looks back into the history of global pandemics and enables you to understand how and why different countries have responded to infectious disease outbreaks in different ways

It helps you to understand the wider and deeper social, economic, political and cultural histories that lead to disease and mortalities.

You will also analyse the experiences of communities and individuals living in the time of pandemics.

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of the unit you will be able to:

  • Discuss the complex historical relations between epidemic disease outbreaks and their cultural, social and political context
  • Describe the experiences of populations and communities living with epidemics under diverse environmental, social and economic conditions
  • Analyse the history of epidemics within a global context of movements of people, ideas and commerce
  • Deliver orally and in writing well-argued and evidence-based summaries of course readings

In addition, for 20 credits:

  • Prepare a well-structured written review, integrating social, economic, political, historical and medical contexts and arguments


  • COVID-19 and the Global history of Pandemics
  • Asiatic Cholera in Europe
  • Quarantine and Isolation
  • The Asymptomatic Carrier: Viruses, Parasites and Humans
  • Living in Quarantine
  • The Making of Modern Malaria
  • Smallpox and Strategies of Eradication
  • AIDS, Ebola and the Return of Plagues
  • Jumping Species, Jumping Borders: COVID-19 Visits Us
  • The New Normal?: Life after COVID-19


10 Credits (UCIL20331)

  1. 1500 word coursework essay (50%)
  2. Online, open-book exam, 2 from 6 essays, 2 hour restricted time window (50%)

20 Credits (UCIL20081)

  1. 1500 word coursework essay 25%)
  2. Online, open-book exam, 2 from 6 essays, 2 hour restricted time window (25%)
  3. 3500 word project essay (50%)


UCIL units are designed to be accessible to undergraduate students from all disciplines.

UCIL units are credit-bearing and it is not possible to audit UCIL units or take them for additional/extra credits. You must enrol following the standard procedure for your School when adding units outside of your home School.

If you are not sure if you are able to enrol on UCIL units you should contact your School Undergraduate office. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a UCIL unit.

You can also contact the UCIL office if you have any questions.

This unit is also available with a different course unit code. To take a UCIL unit you must choose the unit with a UCIL prefix.

Teaching Staff

Harriet Palfreyman

Teaching and Learning Methods

  • 11 x 2 hour lectures/seminars
I very much enjoy my UCIL unit because I am learning about a subject that I never would have learned otherwise. Moreover, it combines history and science which is not something I've had the chance to do before. I also like that it brings together students from different disciplines.Freddie Crane-Robinson

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