Tools for Change: A Reading List on Public Health

People of Color Graphic

At EHN, we are committed to listening, speaking up, and taking action against anti-racist rhetoric and practices. We acknowledge and think actively about how different communities, and groups and individuals therein, distinctly experience racism, including individuals who may identify or present as Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latinx, Indigenous, Middle Eastern, Pacific Islander, or multiracial.

A couple of months ago, we wrote about our intention to share more reading lists around themes that highlight the work and expertise of scholars and activists of color who identify as women, trans, and non binary people. 

Today, we are excited to kick off Tools for Change: a new series to earmark resources on environmental-related topics from such scholars and activists of color. We hope that this series will offer some starting points to help center conversations on, and gain a deeper understanding of, race, racism, and racial justice in various environmentally-focused topics.

Moving forward with this mission, EHN contributors compiled the following, by no means exhaustive, selection of readings on public health. These readings include scholarship focused on various topics related to histories of science, medicine, and the body. Although we organized the readings on this list with specific topics in mind, these readings often incorporate all of these themes and subjects beyond them.

Read, share, use, learn, repeat.


Race Concept in Health

Dr. Rana Hogarth on creation and circulation of medical ideas about Blackness in Atlantic slaveholding regions – Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

Dr. Wangui Muigai on the power and limits of health films to address the complexities of race and health during an era of Jim Crow segregation – “‘Something Wasn’t Clean’: Black Midwifery, Birth, and Postwar Medical Education in All My Babies,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 93, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 82-113.

Ayah Nuriddin on early-twentieth century African Americans who embraced the possibilities of eugenics for racial improvement – “The Black Politics of Eugenics,” Nursing Clio (17 June 2017).

Dr. Kim TallBear on how genetic testing of Indigenous Americans has been used for public health initiatives, and to make claims about sovereignty and belonging to land, tribal and national boundaries, and other ways of belonging – Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

Dr. Ana Carolina Vimieiro-Gomes on the rise of biotypology in Brazilian biomedical sciences during the 1930s – “The Rise of Biotypology in Brazil: Measuring and Classifying the Morphology, Physiology and Character of Brazilians in the 1930s,” Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Ciências Humanas 7, nr. 3 (2012): 705-719.

Reproductive Rights

Dr. Edna Bonhomme on how the reproductive capacity of Black women has always been political – “How the Myth of Black Hyper-Fertility Harms Us,” Al Jazeera (August 16, 2020).

Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens on how pioneering gynecologists promoted and exploited scientific myths about inferior races and nationalities – Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2018).

Dr. Dána-Ain Davis on how the “afterlife of slavery” continues to impact Black mothers and babies in the United States – Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2019).

Dr. Jennifer L. Morgan on the agency of Black women over their bodies – Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in the Making of New World Slavery (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

Dr. Okezi T. Otovo on public health policies in Brazil aimed to “improve” the country’s racial makeup. and move towards scientific modernity – Progressive Mothers, Better Babies: Race, Public Health, and the State in Brazil, 1850-1945 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2016).

Dr. Dorothy Roberts on America’s systemic abuse of Black women’s bodies – Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1997).

Dr. Rosalynn A. Vega on middle-class and white appropriation of Indigenous birth practices – No Alternative: Childbirth, Citizenship, and Indigenous Culture in Mexico (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2018).

Medical Expertise 

Dr. Darlene Clark Hine on the impact of racism on the development of the nursing profession, particularly on Black women in the profession, during the first half of twentieth century – Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Dr. Karen Flynn on the personal histories of Black health care workers who were born in Canada or who immigrated from the Caribbean either through Britain or directly to Canada – Moving Beyond Borders: A History of Black Canadian and Caribbean Women in the Diaspora (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).

Adrianne Gladden-Young on the need for public-health, medical, and scientific communities to include Black expertise – “Give Black Scientists a Place in This Fight,” The Atlantic (June 13, 2020).

Dr. Wendy Makoons Geniusz on Ojibwe botanical knowledge, including medicine, its place in colonial botanical texts, how to combine that information with songs, knowledge from within Ojibwe communities – Our Knowledge Is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009).

Dr. Devon A. Mihesuah (with Elizabeth Hoover, eds.) on the meaning and importance of food sovereignty for Native peoples in the U.S. – Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge Protecting Environments and Regaining Health (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019).

Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble on the role and experiences of Black women physicians in the healthcare of Black communities in the early twentieth century – “Outstanding Services to Negro Health’: Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee and Dr. Virginia M. Alexander and Black Women Physicians’ Public Health Activism,” American Journal of Public Health 106 (2016): 1397-1404.

Dr. Abena Dove Osseo-Asare on how particular medicinal plants found in Africa have, with varying degrees of success and profitability, been transformed, or not, into pharmaceuticals – Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Health Disparities

Dr. Joelle M. Abi-Rached on disease and illness being both real and metaphorical tropes in a sectarian system – “Cancer, Catharsis, and Corruption in Lebanon,” Jadaliyya (January 29, 2020).

Dr. Ruha Benjamin on the tension between scientific innovation and social equality in stem cell research – People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

Dr. Edna Bonhomme on the wide geographical and conceptual reach of medicine and health in the Middle East – “Epidemics and Global History: The Power of Medicine in the Middle East,” Independent Social Research Foundation (September 2018).

Jen Deerinwater on settler colonialism in the U.S. healthcare system, particularly as it impacts Indigenous people and people with disabilities and chronic illnesses – “Checkbox Colonization: The Erasure of Indigenous People In Chronic Illness,” Bitch Media (June 8, 2018).

Dr. Rachel E. Hardeman and Dr. Rhea Boyd (with Eduardo M. Medina) on the need to center racial justice in the U.S. health system – “Stolen Breaths,” New England Journal of Medicine (June 10, 2020).

Dr. Sara Farhan and Dr. Huma Gupta on the links between environment, class, public health, and state surveillance in Iraq – “The Campaign to Eradicate Smallpox in Monarchic Iraq,” Jadaliyya (2020).

Dr. Mary Jane McCallum on the working lives of indigenous Canadian women and their contribution to community building and state resistance – Indigenous Women, Work, and History: 1940-1980 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2018).

Dr. Manuella Meyer on the rise of the psychiatric profession, and its influence, in Rio de Janeiro – Reasoning Against Madness: Psychiatry and the State in Rio de Janeiro, 1830-1944 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2017).

Sandra Yellowhorse on how the movement and creation of Indigenous schools and their praxis still maintain and often times produce settler colonial ideologies of being, personhood, difference, and ability – “The Heart of K’e: Transforming Dine Special Education and Unsettling the Colonial Logics of Disability,” (MA thesis, University of New Mexico, May 2018).

Environmental Health 

Dr. Urmi Engineer Willoughby on the role of insects in history and epidemiological history – Yellow Fever, Race, and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2017).

Erica L. Green on the physical and cognitive effects of lead poisoning – “Flint’s Children Suffer in Class After Years of Drinking the Lead-Poisoned Water,” The New York Times (November 6, 2019).

Dr. Sylvia Hood Washington on how generations of Chicago’s poor, working class and ethnic minority residents have suffered disproportionately from the harmful effects of pollution – Packing Them In: An Archaeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004).

Dr. Teresa Montoya on an uranium spill on Navajo Nation – “Yellow Water: Rupture and Return One Year after the Gold King Mine Spill,” Anthropology Now 9, no. 3 (2019): 91-115.

Dr. Julie Sze on how racial minority and low-income communities often suffer disproportionate effects of urban environmental problems – Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

Dr. Dorceta E. Taylor on the systemic problems that expose poor communities to environmental hazards – Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2014).

Dr. Ingrid Waldron on the legacy of environmental racism and its health impacts in Canada – There’s Something in the Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities (Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2018).


We would like to thank Nicole Welk-Joerger for her help with editing this reading list

*Cover image: Freevector.

[Cover image description: Background illustration with the shape of different people in different colors.]