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Dr Deborah Brunton

Profile summary

Professional biography

I came to history by a circuitous route. I entered the University of Edinburgh to study biological sciences but became interested in the history of science and ended up taking a BSc (Hons) degree in Zoology and Science Studies. I then studied the history of science, technology and medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, completing a PhD with a thesis on smallpox inoculation in 18th century Britain.

Research interests

I spent many years working on smallpox inoculation and vaccination, publishing a monograph comparing the development of vaccination policy in the different parts of the United Kingdom and exploring the reaction of medical practitioners to the arrival of a new cadre of medical experts to oversee government-funded vaccination. Since the mid-1990s I have widened my focus to explore public health in the nineteenth century. Unlike traditional work on the topic, my research on public health in nineteenth-century Scotland looks beyond the work of medical experts in the major cities to investigate the role of local government and parish authorities in bringing order and cleanliness to the urban environment in an effort to control disease. In my work, public health is part of a wider project of civic improvement and urban development. This approach has led me to write on topics where medicine crosses over urban history, including the provision of public lavatories, street cleaning, and the sale of urban refuse.

In 2012 I was invited to write a textbook Health and wellness in the 19th century (ABC Clio, 2013). It explores medical knowledge and practices in different cultures around the world, and the impact of empire, migration and industry upon patterns of health and disease across the globe.

External Affiliations

Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Glasgow.



Medicine in Modern Britain (London: Taylor & Francis, forthcoming)

Health and Wellness in the Nineteenth century (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2013).

The Politics of Vaccination. Practice and Policy in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, 1800-1874 (Rochester, USA: Rochester University Press, hardback February 2008, paperback 2012).

Selected Articles

‘Regulating filth: cleansing in Scottish towns and cities, 1840–1880,’ Urban History Published online Dec. 2014.

'Health, comfort and convenience: the work of the Scottish Police Commissioners, 1800-1870,’ Scottish Archives 17 (2011) 85-96.

‘Evil Necessaries and Abominable Erections: Public Conveniences and Private Interests in the Scottish City, 1830-1870’ Social History of Medicine 18 (2005) 187-202.

‘The Idea of a Germ’ (Essay review of Michael Worboys, Spreading Germs. Disease Theories and Medical Practice in Britain, 1865-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 34 (2003) 367-73.

‘Power, Policy and Practice: Public Health in the Scottish City’ in Steven Sturdy (ed) Medicine and the Public Sphere (Society for the Social History of Medicine series, London: Routledge, 2002)

‘A Question of Priority: Alexander Wood, Charles Hunter and the Hypodermic Administration of Medicines’ Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians, 30 (2000), 349-51.

‘The Problems of Implementation: the Failure and Success of Public Vaccination against Smallpox in Ireland, 1840-1873’ in Elizabeth Malcolm and Greta Jones (eds) Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland 1750-1950 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999, 138-57.

‘Practitioners versus Legislators: the Shaping of the Scottish Vaccination Act’ Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians 23, (1993) 193-201.

‘Smallpox Inoculation and Demographic Trends in Eighteenth century Scotland’ Medical History, 36 (1992) 403-29.

See also Open Research Online for further details of Deborah Brunton’s research publications.

Teaching interests

Before coming to the Open University, I taught various courses in history of medicine and history of technology at Edinburgh and Manchester Universities. From 1991 to 1996 was a Wellcome Trust Award Holder at Huddersfield University, introducing the history of medicine to the history curriculum there. At the Open University, I have written teaching units on medicine in the 19th and 20th centuries for A218 Medicine and Society in Europe, 1500-11930, on Islamic medicine and on the history of the seaside for AA100 The Arts Past and Present. I have also written on twentieth century medicine for A327 Europe 1914-1989. War, peace, modernityI am currently preparing material on urban history for new module on Early Modern Europe.

I have taken a leading role in designing the computing components on a number of courses including a DVD ROM teaching the use of visual sources for the history of medicine and computer games to test students’ knowledge of the growth of seaside resorts and to introduce them to life in early modern Europe.

I have successfully supervised a number of postgraduate students working on aspects of modern medicine and on nineteenth century history.

Mia Ridge, Participant digitisation, crowdsourcing and the History Commons: how academic and family/local historians evaluate, use and contribute to collaborative digital history resources

Gerry Colley, Electrifying the streets: the surface-contact controversy in five English towns 1880-1920

Jane Berney, ‘The Contagious Diseases Acts in Hong Kong: Imperial Policy Versus Local Governance.’

Julia Matheson, PhD ‘Common Grounds. Working-Class Horticulture in the East End of London, 1840-1914’  completed 2011.

Susan Knowles, ‘A Regional Study of the Relationships between Workhouses, Hospitals and Anatomists in East Anglia following the 1832 Anatomy Act’ Ph.D completed 2010.

Catherine Lee, ‘The Contagious Diseases Act in Kent,’ Ph.D, completed 2008. Published as Policing Prostitution, 1856–1886 Deviance, Surveillance and Morality London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012.

John MacKeith, ‘The Early Careers of Scottish Medical Graduates in the Nineteenth Century’, M.Phil, completed 2005.

Peter Higgins, ‘Medical Care in Prisons in the early Nineteenth century’, Ph.D, completed 2004. Published as Punish or Treat? Medical Care in English Prisons, 1770-1850 (Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2007).

Anna Simmons, ‘The Scientific Activities of the Society of Apothecaries, 1750-1921’, Ph.D completed 2004.

I am currently supervising students working on the following topics:

Yvonne Fisher, ‘ The Role of the Coroner in the Nineteenth Century: A Study of Thomas Wakley and His Contemporaries and Their Influence on medical and Coronial Legislation in Victorian Society’

Frank Hughes, Captives of the System: The Commissioners in Lunacy as Regulators of Services for Pauper Lunatics and Idiots, 1845-1914

Lucy Santos, Radiating Beauty: The use of Radium in Beauty Products in the United Kingdom, 1900-1939


[Book Review] Michael Bennett, War Against Smallpox. Edward Jenner and the Global Spread of Vaccination (2021-02)
Brunton, Deborah
Social History of Medicine, 34(1) (pp. 331-332)

Regulating filth: cleansing in Scottish towns and cities, 1840–1880 (2015-08)
Brunton, Deborah
Urban History, 42(3) (pp. 424-439)

Evil necessaries and abominable erections: public conveniences and private interests in the Scottish city, 1830-70 (2005-08)
Brunton, Deborah
Social History of Medicine, 18(2) (pp. 187-202)

The Idea of a germ: [Essay review of] 'Spreading germs: disease theories and medical practice in Britain, 1865–1900' by Michael Worboys (2003-06)
Brunton, Deborah
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 34(2) (pp. 367-373)

Health and Wellness in the 19th Century (2013-12)
Brunton, Deborah
Health and Wellness in Daily Life
ISBN : 978-0-313-38511-7 | Publisher : ABC Clio | Published : Santa Barbara

The Politics of Vaccination: Practice and Policy in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, 1800-1874 (2008-02-16)
Brunton, Deborah
ISBN : 1580460364 | Publisher : Rochester University Press | Published : Rochester, New York

Power, policy and practice: the public response to public health in the Scottish city (2002-09-12)
Brunton, Deborah
In: Sturdy, Steven ed. Medicine, health and and the public sphere in Britain, 1600-2000. Routledge Studies in the Social History of Medicine (pp. 171-188)
ISBN : 415279062 | Publisher : Routledge | Published : UK

The problems of implementation: the failure and success of public vaccination against smallpox in Ireland, 1840-1873 (1999)
Brunton, Deborah
In: Jones, Greta and Malcolm, Elizabeth eds. Medicine, Disease and the State in Ireland 1650-1940 (pp. 138-157)
ISBN : 978-1859181102 | Publisher : Cork University Press | Published : Cork