Understanding the Context of Public Health’s Conceptual Origin

To understand public health beyond the conceptual definition I will conjecture regarding its origin in Western societies. The origin of public health is likely rooted in 19th century social changes. An example location that I will use as a basis for this discussion is London during the aforementioned period.

In the early 19th century new technology and power shifts in England fueled the phenomenon known as industrialization. Industrialization changed nearly every aspect of social life. Before the scientific and industrial revolution, life in England for most people was typically rural and agrarian. Techniques in farming and production displaced traditional workers and, in a chain of events, led to increased urbanization and disruption of traditional community safety nets.

With these changes the city of London faced several major problems. The first issue was overstraining of infrastructural resources in the city. Public wells and streets were overused and unsafe, and the new economic system could offer no solutions to these issues. Second, increased population density meant that transmissible diseases spread rapidly throughout the city. Lastly, the new industry was dumping pollutants into the air and waters of England. This created hazardous conditions and made many previously-populated areas unlivable.

The work of John Snow, whose findings linked a contaminated well to a cholera outbreak in London, revolutionized understanding of public health globally as a societal necessity. Government-run public health programs expanded as 1) New technology enabled the detection and elimination of health threats; 2) People became convinced that systematic measures to ensure public health and safety were efficient and trustworthy; and 3) The notion that the government had a moral responsibility to protect society’s vulnerable became more widely held.

Public health is a general term that refers to a measure of a population’s wellbeing. Today there are many who dispute the extent to which the government should be involved in ensuring public health. These perspectives continue to shape health policy, which affects the wellbeing of billions of people worldwide.