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What is Public Health?

In 1920, Charles-Edward A. Winslow defined public health as

"the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical health and efficiency through organized community efforts for the sanitation of the environment, the control of community infections, the education of the individual in principles of personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing service for the early diagnosis and preventive treatment of disease, and the development of the social machinery which will ensure to everyEssentialFunctions.jpg individual in the community a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health."

Most public health professionals today would also include mental health in a complete definition of public health.

While the birth of modern public health occurred in the 18th century, there is evidence of public health dating back to the beginnings of human civilization. According to the book, Environmental History of Water: Global View of Community Water Supply and Sanitation by Petri S. Juuti, Tapio S. Katko, and Heikki S. Vuorinen, the first purposeful construction of water supply, bathrooms, toilets, and drainage in Europe dates back to second millenium B.C., which is over 4,000 years ago to provide some perspective. This module provides an overview of the history of public health and how it has evolved over time.

Learning Objectives

After completing this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain the evolution of concepts about the cause and prevention of disease.
  • Describe the importance of studying the factors associated with outcomes in a systematic way in human populations.
  • Discuss some of the major historical figures and events that played a role in the evolution of public health and epidemiology.
list of module pages by topic
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