Spring 2022 - HSCI 891 G100

Special Topics in Health Sciences (3)

Plagues, Pollutants & Poverty: Public Health

Class Number: 6354

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Tu 8:30 AM – 11:20 AM
    BLU 9011, Burnaby

  • Instructor:

    Bruce Lanphear
    1 360 684 2110
    Office Hours: By reservation



Special topics in areas not currently covered within the graduate program offerings.


COURSE DESCRIPTION: Students will become familiar with the origins and evolution of public health in the course, Plagues, Pollutants and Poverty. We will explore topics through a combination of lectures, videos, readings and interpretation of the peer-reviewed literature, class activities and one popular book that students will select from a list of classic or popular public health books, such as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and John Updike's "The Jungle". Students will also complete written assignments and participate in classroom discussions. We will critically examine and discuss various transitions in public health, focusing on landmark studies and key insights that led to changing concepts and interventions in public health, such as the sanitarian movement, the germ theory, nutritional deficiencies, the rise in chronic diseases, occupational health, maternal and child health, and environmental health. We will also explore the impact of plagues on human populations, including the COVID pandemic. Finally, we will explore mysteries in public health, including why we live longer and the mysterious decline in coronary heart disease.


LEARNING OBJECTIVES: Upon completion of this course students should be able to:
1. Identify landmark studies and key figures in public health
2. Appreciate how population strategies, not medical care or medical science, led to greatest reductions in disease and increase in life expectancy
3. Describe and compare a contemporary public health problem or solution with an historical problem to gain insight into how public health evolves. 

EXPECTED OUTCOMES: Students will be able to describe: key figures and events in the sanitarian and public health movements; be familiar with landmark studies in the development of germ theory, vaccines, epidemiology, occupational health, maternal & child health, and environmental health. Students will also be able to describe major transitions in public health.


  • Final Project 25%
  • Midterm Exam 25%
  • Book Reflection 20%
  • Attendance and Participation 10%
  • Oral Presentation 20%


Class participation and attendance (10%): Students will be evaluated on their willingness to participate in class, as well as the degree to which their participation enhances discussion in the class.

Book reflection (20%): Students will read one popular book that they select from a list of classic or popular public health books, such as Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and John Updike's "The Jungle". They will write a one-page reflection of their book, focusing especially on how the book changed their view of public health.

Midterm Exam (25%): Students will complete a midterm exam that includes multiple choice questions and open-ended questions.

Presentation (20%): Students will be required to deliver an oral presentation of their class project that compares a historical public health problem or solution with a contemporary public health issue, or explores a public health mystery. The presentation will be 10 minutes or less in duration. Students will recieve feedback to help them refine their final written project.

Draft Proposal: Prior to the submission of the final written assignment, students will write a draft, one-page project description that will be reviewed and critiqued by the course director to help them refine their final class project. The draft proposal will not be graded.

Final Class Project (25%): Students will write a final paper that compares a historical public health problem or solution with a contemporary public health issue or explores a public health mystery. Essays are to be a maximum of four pages and will be assessed in terms of both content (75% of the mark) and style (e.g., grammar, flow, ease of reading = 25% of the mark). References are expected and the word limit must be strictly adhered to. Full details of assignments will be given during class.



REQUIRED TEXT: No textbook is required for this course. Assigned readings will be journal articles and other readings available in the SFU library or provided by the instructor.


The first assignment for students is to read one popular or historical book about public health. It should NOT be a book you have already read. You can also propose to read a different book on the history of public health, but you will first need approval from the course director if it is not on this list. After reading the book, students will write a one-paragraph description of the book and a one-paragraph reflection or insight(s) you gained from the book. I am especially interested in how the book changed your perception of the role of public health. Each paragraph should be 500-words of single-space text.  

1.        The Discovery of Insulin - Michael Bliss
2.        Silent Spring - Rachel Carson
3.        Panum on Measles - Peter Panum
4.        Snow on Cholera - John Snow
5.        The Ghost Map - Steven Johnson
6.        Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond
7.        Betrayal of Public Health - Laurie Garrett
8.        Mirage of Health – Rene Dubos
9.        Rats, Lice and History – Hans Zinsser
10.      Plagues and Peoples – William McNeill
11.      The Remedy by Thomas Goetz
12.      Ashes to Ashes - Richard Klugman
13.      Protecting America’s Health – Philip Hilts
14.      The Great Influenza – John M. Barry
15.      Doubt is Their Product - David Michaels
16.      Deceit and Denial – David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz
17.      The Jungle – Upton Sinclair
18.      Rose’s Strategy of Prevention – Geoffrey Rose
19.      And the Band Played On – Randy Hilts
20.      Poison Profits – Philip and Alice Shabecoff
21.      Living Downstream – Sandra Steingraber
22.      Our Stolen Future – Theo Colborn and others
23.      Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky
24.      Toms River by Dan Fagin
25.       Extra Life by Steven Johnson

Graduate Studies Notes:

Important dates and deadlines for graduate students are found here: http://www.sfu.ca/dean-gradstudies/current/important_dates/guidelines.html. The deadline to drop a course with a 100% refund is the end of week 2. The deadline to drop with no notation on your transcript is the end of week 3.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html


Teaching at SFU in spring 2022 will involve primarily in-person instruction, with safety plans in place.  Some courses will still be offered through remote methods, and if so, this will be clearly identified in the schedule of classes.  You will also know at enrollment whether remote course components will be “live” (synchronous) or at your own pace (asynchronous).

Enrolling in a course acknowledges that you are able to attend in whatever format is required.  You should not enroll in a course that is in-person if you are not able to return to campus, and should be aware that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who may need class or exam accommodations, including in the context of remote learning, are advised to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning (caladmin@sfu.ca or 778-782-3112) as early as possible in order to prepare for the spring 2022 term.