MSc/ MPhil in History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Course Structure

The MSc programme comprises elements which take place throughout the one-year programme. The MPhil programme follows the same elements over a two-year period.

Two core qualifying papers

Students are introduced to the history of science, medicine and technology by means of the ‘Methods and themes in the History of Science, medicine and technology’ course.  

It provides an introduction

(a) to ways of interpreting some of the main traditions in the gathering, manipulation, and application of natural knowledge, and

(b) to the key themes and methodological issues in the history of medicine, including concepts of health and disease,and  the relationship between patients and practitioners of health care in different settings and periods.  

The two qualifying papers consist of one essay on methods and themes in the history of science and technology, and one on methods and themes in the history of medicine (each essay being 3000 words)’.

Two advanced options

Please note: for the MPhil programme four advanced Options will be chosen to take place over the two-years.

Usually taught in small classes. Please note that not every option will be available each year, and that they are subject to change:

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Once rejected as a wretched pseudo-science, the history of astrology is now recognised as vital to understanding pre-modern culture. Providing a universal framework which integrated the heavens with both society and the individual, it enabled interpretation as well as judgment. The subject was pursued in universities, at courts, in cities and on the streets by a great diversity of practitioners and clients. It provides an extraordinarily rich route into many fields and topics, with substantial connections to the histories of mathematics, astronomy, natural philosophy, medicine, magic, alchemy, art, politics, history, theology, religion, the body and sexuality. This paper introduces its ancient roots but focuses principally on astrology’s theory and practice in medieval and early-modern Islamicate and Christian cultures. From 9th-century Baghdad to 12th-century al-Andalus it played a leading role in intellectual transformations and movements of translation, while in Timurid Samarqand, Ottoman Istanbul, Habsburg Vienna and ducal Milan it was crucial to imperial and noble ambitions and propaganda. A learned and highly technical art, in Europe it nevertheless also came to be distributed through cheap print almanacs to a wider audience, saturating Reformation Germany and Civil War England with prognostications.

The course provides a thematic perspective on astrology’s many dimensions and discusses why, after centuries of polemical refutation and defence, it lost its intellectual status in later 17th-century Europe. Sessions are delivered in the Museum of the History of Science whose collections, equally strong in both Islamicate and European sources, provide a vital dimension of material culture to complement the subject’s intellectual history. It is also hoped to be able to introduce students to relevant manuscript and printed sources in the Bodleian Library.



The history of health and medicine in what is now referred to as South Asia is a burgeoning field. Much of this literature has concentrated on the place of medicine in relations between Europeans and Indians before and during periods of formal colonial rule. Historians who have worked on these subjects have used medicine, health and disease as windows through which to view social and political trends and that is the approach taken in this course.

The course begins by examining the interaction of medical ideas and practices that followed the establishment of Portuguese colonies in India at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Having surveyed various aspects of the medical encounters between Indians and Europeans during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the course explores the role of Western medicine under British rule during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Themes include the growth of Western medical education and hospitals, reform of indigenous medical traditions, public health and epidemic diseases, and the relationship between medical theory and political ideas.



This course explores the role of disease and medicine in the development of the Americas, beginning with first contact between the Old World and the New and ending with American intervention in Latin America. It provides a comparative overview of colonial experience and practice, examining the empires of Spain, France, Portugal, and England/Britain. Medicine and other responses to disease are used to elucidate political and social structures of imperialism and examine the 25 effect of the ‘New World’ on European thought and practice.

We begin with the Columbian exchange, looking at the obstacles and opportunities that disease presented in the so-called New World. We consider disease and medicine in the shaping of the Atlantic slave trade, as well as in the diversity of theories regarding race in Spanish America, the Caribbean, and the United States.

Key themes:

  • Disease, Medicine, and Imperialism: The Columbian Exchange
  • Renaissance Medicine and New World Exploration
  • Disease, Medicine, and the New Environment
  • Early American Bodies
  • Hot Climates and Tropical Medicine
  • Imperial Networks and Knowledge: Colonial France
  • Medicine and Slaver
  • The Politics of Medicine in America



The course will examine the manifold uses of electrotherapy and the strategies of its legitimization throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In its heyday in the late Victorian era, electrotherapy was utilised for a myriad of neurological and psychiatric disorders. By exploiting the prestige of science and the numinous quality of technology, medical electricians translated the protean forces of nature into an emblem of medical modernity. Later on, however, the spread of urban networks of power and the introduction of electrical appliances into the home had lent an aura of mundanity to the speciality.

Throughout the course there will be an opportunity to discuss the social meaning of electricity and its diverse and often incompatible associations with all aspects of society: ‘quackery’, popular entertainment, industry, communications and even capital punishment. Attention will be given to contemporary literature and film, historical artefacts and patient records as well as new scholarship.

Key themes:

  • Therapeutics and electricity: the evidence
  • Intervention and professional identity
  • Popular culture and electrical panaceas
  • Science, technology and rationalising practice
  • Institutionalising electrotherapy – hospitals and patients
  • Metrology and the ‘body electric’
  • Therapeutic change and discourse of evaluation
  • Atoms, war and new bodies of rationality 



This course explores the history of ideas about the relationship between individual and collective psychology and religious concepts and experience. The course takes a comparative approach, looking across cultures with an emphasis on the range and diversity of the psychologies of religious experience and their changing interpretations over time.

The course examines a wide variety of case studies from Africa, Asia, the Pacific, urban America and the American Southwest, seeking to contrast the points of view of followers of religious movements with the interpretations of state authorities who often believed they were witnessing incidences of mass hysteria or religious mania. Class discussions will highlight both the differences and commonalities of various types of prophetic and charismatic movements, shamanistic practices, and 20th and 21st century interpretations of religious experience within neurology and the neurosciences.

Students will engage with a wide body of historical and anthropological literature as a means of tracking the resilience of ancient phenomena into modern times.




This course is based in the Museum of the History of Science and can be taken as a standalone option or as a complement to the "The Material Culture of the Scientific Revolution, 1500-1700". It examines the practice of science through a range of 18th- and 19th-century case studies. Some areas, for example navigation, display the development of professional practice, while others such as Enlightenment chemistry show a new field being shaped in the public sphere.

A major theme is the role of material culture in the transformation of natural philosophy and the emergence of new scientific disciplines. The paper also considers how objects and materials were collected and displayed, and one of its most distinctive features is the use in class of artefacts and archives from the museum’s collection. 



This course explores the complex mutual interplay between Malthusian, Darwinian and other evolutionary theories, and the intellectual, social and national contexts in which they were embedded.  Malthus’s insight that the tendency of human populations to expand exponentially would place constant pressure on the carrying capacity of the Earth has been of immense significance in the last two centuries.  It formed the basis of nineteenth-century political economy and was a key source for Charles Darwin as he tried to formulate the general principles of evolution by natural selection.  Later in the nineteenth century, Social Darwinist and eugenic approaches appealed to men and women from a number of different nationalities and political positions, virtually all of whom used these theories to show why people like themselves were intellectually and racially superior to others.  The course examines how such theories served as the basis for state policy in the 1920s and 30s, and concludes by looking at the re-emergence of Malthusian concerns about global population immediately after the Second World War.   



This course examines manpower as both a physical and political concept during the early modern period. It traces how bodies changed alongside the development of methods to assess, discipline, and cultivate their vitality, linking the development of scientific methodologies to imperial and state formation. The course illuminates the relationship between bodies and state power in early modern Europe, showing the dynamism and flexibility of both.

This is accomplished through a comparison of approaches to manpower from a variety of historical disciplines: anthropometrics; economics; warfare; medicine; science and technology; state and imperial formation. Course readings examine how bodies changed and grew over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as how they were measured, regulated, and exploited.

Methods of assessing population strength, as well as debates over medicine’s role in population growth, will be used as tangible examples of early modern political theory and practice. Readings, both primary and secondary, engage with theory on the modern state, to place military and medical history within the broader context of the formation of early modern states and empires, and to evaluate assumptions about scientific methodologies and political authority. 



The main aim of this course is to illuminate some of the more important aspects of the relationship between medicine and warfare in the period from the early nineteenth century through to the twentieth century. The over-arching theme of the course is the role of medicine in the emergence of ‘modern’ forms of warfare, particularly the contribution that medicine made to manpower economy, discipline and morale. Examination of these themes will enable students to comment critically on the work of theorists of modernity such as Max Weber and Michel Foucault and to place military-medical developments in the context of recent historical scholarship on the ‘military revolution’ and the growth of modern states.

The course also examines the relationship between war and medical innovation and between war and welfare provisions. Study of these subjects will entail critical evaluation of the arguments advanced by historians such as Jay Winter and Roger Cooter, and of relevant social and cultural theory.




This course challenges students to critique the social and ethical dimensions of economic and political policies and strategies, using public health as the organizing framework for both historical and contemporary case studies in Africa. The course will begin with an introduction to the historiography of health and medicine in Africa and will continue with readings from a variety of disciplines and a wide range of primary and secondary sources related to key themes and ways of thinking about public health and medicine.

Seminars will offer not only examples that are well documented case studies in medical history and bioethics, such as the Colonial response to sleeping sickness in the Belgian Congo, but also those practices that, although widespread and devastating, have remained largely hidden from view such as the promotion of dangerous skin-lightening creams or the market-driven epidemic of ‘commerciogenic malnutrition’ caused by the aggressive marketing of baby formula in developing countries.

The course will conclude with seminars analysing the impact of the global AIDS pandemic, particularly in Africa, where the complex relations of governments, scientific research bodies, health workers, and the pharmaceutical industry are discussed. 



The course will outline the basic features of the Aristotelian worldview and will then assess how and why new approaches to studying nature supplanted the older paradigm.  It will examine the key scientific discoveries that led to the erosion of confidence in the robustness and completeness of that system, which culminated in a rough agreement about what scientific knowledge was, and how research should be conducted.

Students will study the significance of personal contact, correspondence, and the development of various international standards for pursuing natural philosophy; the 'reconstitution of the philosophical self' as a precondition for performing scientific enquiry; the significance of disciplines and of disciplinary changes (particularly regarding the borders and relations between philosophy and theology); proto-science fiction; the importance of, and justifications for experimental research against various critiques; the changing relations between philosophy and metaphysics during the period; the relevance of alchemical and magical traditions; the evolving relations between artisans and philosophers during the period; the invention of the totemic hero or scientific 'genius' as part of a new genealogy of scientific authorship; and the 'popularization' of natural philosophy towards the end of the period. 


The advanced options of the Economic and Social History programmes are also available for History of Science and Medicine candidates.


MSc in History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Not more than 15,000 words on a topic of the student's choice, approved by her or his supervisor, and submitted in August. Students will begin to formulate and plan their dissertation in conjunction with their supervisors from the beginning of the course.

MPhil in History of Science, Medicine and Technology

Not more than 30,000 words on a topic of the student's choice, approved by her or his supervisor, and submitted at the beginning of Trinity (Summer) Term in the second year of the programme.
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