Ask a typical student who is studying epidemiology what she or he is learning, and the overwhelming answer will refer to a set of methods useful for analyzing the distribution and determinants of population patterns of health. Ask the same student to name the epidemiologic theories of disease distribution that give rise to the hypotheses being tested in epidemiologic research, and the likely answer will be an awkward silence. And ask the student to recount what she or he has been taught about the history of epidemiology, and the answer almost always will have something to do with John Snow removing the handle of the Broad Street Pump in 1854 to stop a cholera epidemic in London.
It is this limited understanding of what is actually the long, rich role – and contentious history – of epidemiologic theory in shaping knowledge about the causes of the societal distributions of health and disease that Nancy Krieger, Harvard School of Public Health professor of society, human development, and health, challenges in her new book Epidemiology and The People’s Health: Theory and Context, being released in April 2011 from Oxford University Press. Krieger is also the co-director of the HSPH Interdisciplinary Concentration on Women, Gender and Health and co-founder and chair of the Spirit of 1848 Caucus of the American Public Health Association, which focuses on links between social justice and public health.
In the eight-chapter, 400-page book Krieger traces and analyzes the history and contours of epidemiologic theories from ancient societies on through the development of – and debates within – contemporary epidemiology worldwide. “This book reflects work I’ve been engaged in and thinking about for many years. It presents what I wish I’d been taught, when I was studying to become an epidemiologist, about the theories and history of my field,” Krieger said in an interview in her office at the School. It also reflects what she currently teaches, in a course required of all doctoral students in her department, on “History, Politics, and Public Health: Theories of Disease Distribution and Social Inequalities in Health” (SHH215).