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Medicine and society in Europe 1500-1930

This fascinating introduction to the last five centuries of medical history traces developments in medicine from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. It shows how a heritage of medical thought and practice inherited from classical Greece gradually became a recognisably modern medicine. The module aims to set medicine in its social, political and economic contexts, looking at the patient’s changing experience of illness, their access to care, and the role and identity of healers across Europe. It shows how western medicine interacted with ideas from contemporary science, religion, and other systems of thought.

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Module code
Study level
2 9 5
Study method
Distance Learning
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements
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Student Reviews

Very interesting course and good quality materials. Pity it is ending soon....
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I found this course fascinating & now have a huge appreciation for how medicine has developed. However I did find...
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What you will study

In today’s society, the growth of medical technologies, costs of treatment and provision of medical care have become increasingly controversial issues which affect everybody’s life. History can provide a valuable perspective from which to make sense of today’s challenges. This module is for all students with an interest in history or medicine, and aims to provide a broad and deep understanding of how different social, political and cultural contexts shaped medical thought and practice between 1500 and 1930. Medical theories about the body and disease did not develop in isolation, but owed much to ideas from contemporary science and religion. The work of governments in providing health care was shaped by broader ideas of the proper function of the state. The role of hospitals was determined not just by the constraints of medical technology, but by funding and by the identity of patients as ’deserving cases’.

The module is organised chronologically, with each unit focusing on a major topic, such as the variety of healers in the early modern period; the development of the nineteenth-century medical profession; or colonial medicine. Comparisons help the appreciation of historical and geographic differences, and this is why the module explores the history of medicine across Europe and takes into account the input of non-western medical systems.

The work of the module is spread over 32 weeks. This includes six ‘reading weeks’ which provide a chance to catch up on work and prepare assignments. There are six tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) that begin with short essays and work up to long essays using material from across the module. The questions in the final three-hour examination are of similar forms.

Images and material culture are now at the centre of medical historians’ research. In addition to exploring a variety of written sources, you will engage with a range of visual materials. Videos will show and discuss the history of the buildings and spaces used for medical practice. The CD-ROM will help you to analyse still images to make sense of the changing perceptions of the body and the portrayal of patients and practitioners. You will learn how to ’read‘ buildings, objects and images to gain new insight into medicine in the past.

The module develops not only an understanding of the key features of the social history of medicine in Europe between 1500 and 1930, but also the skills to work independently; to evaluate and use primary and secondary source materials; to write essays; and to think critically about the work of historians. These skills will equip you for a wide range of studies at OU level 3.

If you would like more information about this module you can visit the A218 website which includes further details about the module content, samples of study materials, extracts from the CD-ROM, and frequently asked questions.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer group tutorials or day schools that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where your tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking the module.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in October 2015 when it will be available for the final time. 


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Course work includes:

6 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

Course satisfaction survey

See the satisfaction survey results for this course.


This is an OU level 2 module and builds on the OU level 1 modules The arts past and present (AA100) and Voices, texts and material culture (A105). These OU level 1 modules develop skills such as logical thinking, clear expression, essay writing and the ability to select and interpret relevant materials. They also offer an introduction to a range of subjects in the arts and humanities.

If you have not studied at university level before, you are strongly advised to study at OU level 1 before progressing to OU level 2 study.

Your regional or national centre can advise you on where you can see reference copies of Level 1 study materials. Some are also available from Open University Worldwide Ltd. We particularly recommend looking at these materials if you have not successfully completed OU level 1 study or studied at an equivalent level elsewhere.

You do not require any prior knowledge of medicine and its history, or any computing skills to study this module. All medical terms and ideas will be explained, and there is a comprehensive tutorial for using the CD-ROM.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

It would be useful to read the set text The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, R. Porter, Fontana Press. If you have not previously taken an Open University arts module, we advise you to read The Arts Good Study Guide, E. Chambers and A. Northedge, The Open University.


Start End England fee Register
03 Oct 2015 Jun 2016 £2700.00

Registration closes 10/09/15 (places subject to availability)


You may need to apply for some payment or funding options earlier. Please check the Fees and Funding information or contact us for information.

October 2015 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

If you're on a low income you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after you register.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).  

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU qualifications are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to achieve one. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the qualification you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your modules.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Maestro (UK only), Mastercard, Visa/Delta and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

For more information about combining payment options, speak to an adviser or book a call back at a time that is convenient to you.

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and therefore the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fees and funding information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2016. Fees normally increase annually in line with inflation and the University's strategic approach to fees. 

This information was provided on 28/07/2015.

What's included

Books, other printed materials, audio CDs, DVD, CD-ROM, website.

You will need

Television, DVD and audio CD players.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available. For this module you will also need to install software provided by the OU on a disk or USB stick.

A Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system is suitable for this module. You will be required to install Microsoft Windows specific software.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

Materials to buy

Set books

  • Brunton, D. (ed) Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1800-1930: A Source Book Manchester University Press £16.99 - ISBN 9780719067396
  • Porter, R. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind Fontana Press £25.00 - ISBN 9780006374541
  • Elmer, P. & Grell, O. (eds) Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1500-1800: A Source Book Manchester University Press £16.99 - ISBN 9780719067372

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and musical notation and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. The study materials are available on audio in DAISY Digital Talking Book format. Other alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future.

One of the aims of this module is to utilise the rich heritage of visual imagery available to students in the history of medicine. One of the learning outcomes for this module is for students to develop their ability to analyse visual sources e.g. a poor quality nineteenth-century print of a public surgical procedure. Alternative arrangements can be made for blind and severely visually impaired students who experience difficulty in achieving this learning outcome. Visually impaired students have successfully completed the module. Students who have a background in the study of images gained whilst usefully sighted may be able to draw upon this experience in interpreting such images. Students are able to magnify CD-ROM images within the limits of standard computer applications, but no textual descriptions or alternative formats of images will be available and the use of a sighted assistant to interpret images would conflict with the required learning outcome. Blind and visually impaired students are encouraged to contact us for advice before registering for this module.

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.