Public Health and the City (Fall Online Course)

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In this free adult course with architectural historian Michael J. Lewis, learn how pandemics and the fear of disease have shaped cities.

About this Event

The Wagner's free adult courses have moved online until it is safe to hold classes in-person.


Public Health and the City with Professor Michael J. Lewis

6 Tuesdays, October 6 to November 17, 2020 (no class on Election Day). A Zoom link will be sent to registered students.

The current pandemic reminds us that disease and the fear of disease have always shaped cities. Since cities began ten thousand years ago, they have constantly struggled with the need for clean water, fresh air, and the removal of sewage. But that struggle became much more urgent with the Industrial Revolution, which made cities more populous and denser than ever before–producing catastrophic epidemics and desperate countermeasures. Philadelphia, Paris, and London each owe their familiar urban form in large measure to devastating epidemics of yellow fever, cholera, and typhus. This course looks at how doctors, architects, and city planners responded to disease, and how their responses changed along with changing medical knowledge. Because of its importance in the history of medicine and of public philanthropy, Philadelphia, gives us a unique resource in studying these issues at first hand. The ultimate goal of the course is to deepen our understanding of cities and public health.

There will be one architectural tour—a field trip to the Fairmount Water Works, with appropriate social distancing. One short research paper is optional for students who wish to deepen their knowledge.

Course Schedule

1. Tuesday, October 6 - Health and City: An overview of the history of urban form, and the history of disease control

2. Tuesday, October 13 - Yellow Fever in a Greene Country Towne: Public Health and Philadelphia

3. Tuesday, October 20 - Blue Death in the City of Lights: Paris, Cholera and Baron Haussmann

4. Tuesday, October 27 – London and the Great Stink of 1858

NO CLASS – Tuesday, November 3 – Election Day

5. Tuesday, November 10 - Hospitals, Asylums and Disease

6. Tuesday, November 17 - From “Sick Building Syndrome” to Coronavirus

About the Professor

Dr. Michael J. Lewis is the Faison-Pierson Stoddard Professor of Art at Williams College in Massachusetts. His research focuses on 19th and 20th century art, architecture and urban history. He is the author of Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. His forthcoming book, Philadelphia Builds, a collection of his essays on Philadelphia architecture, will be published by Paul Dry Books in 2021. He is the architecture critic of the Wall Street Journal. He has taught courses for the Wagner since 2009.

If you have any questions about this online course, please email or

Images: Top: "The 'Silent Highway'-Man" cartoon of the Thames in London, Punch Magazine. Below: Lithograph of the Fairmount Water Works, Philadelphia.

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