Five Books That Every Public Health Student Should Read

Kathryn Brousseau, MPH’23 in Epidemiology

What does it mean to truly understand the work of public health? The theories and methods that you will spend your time studying here at Rollins are certainly a key component, but they do not exist in a vacuum. It is equally important to understand the stories that have given rise to public health as we know it, as well as the lived experiences of people impacted by public health (in)action. Not to mention, we all need to unplug from the stressors of grad school every now and then, and curling up with a good book can be the perfect way to do that.

I have curated a list of five books that inspired me to enter the field of public health and shaped my understanding of its role and impact. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it serves as a jumping-off point for those looking for their next (or first!) public health-related read.

To Repair the World: Paul Farmer Speaks to the Next Generation
Paul Farmer

Physician, anthropologist, and co-founder of Partners in Health, Paul Farmer devoted his life to advancing health equity around the world. To Repair the World is an anthology of Farmer’s speeches that highlights the most pressing public health challenges faced by our generation, as well as an uplifting message about the power of solidarity and social justice. When you are
feeling disheartened by shortcomings of the public health system, grab this book to reignite your passion to make a difference.

An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back
Elisabeth Rosental

The United States healthcare system is confusing. Period. An American Sickness by Elisabeth Rosenthal breaks down the behemoth that is the U.S. healthcare system into its distinct parts—hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and drug manufacturers—and explains how their
complex relationships have created the world’s most expensive healthcare system. She also details what we can do about it, both on the individual-level and through far-reaching policy reforms.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America
Beth Macy

Keep a box of tissues at the ready for this one. Few books do more to humanize the statistics we often deal with as public health practitioners than Dopesick by Beth Macy. Macy seamlessly blends research into actions taken by the pharmaceutical industry with heart wrenching stories
of those affected by the opioid epidemic in Appalachia. If you’re not into reading, consider watching the Hulu docuseries based on this book, also called

Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison
Allen M. Hornblum

At first glance, ethical considerations for research involving human subjects can seem somewhat esoteric. However, Acres of Skin by Allen M. Hornblum serves as a stark reminder of the devastating toll of ill-managed biomedical research in the United States’ not-so-distant past. While the book covers events that occurred in the 1950’s—1970s, many of its themes, including
incarceration, racial (in)justice, and research ethics, remain important today.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men
Caroline Criado Perez

Data drives decision-making in public health. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez illustrates how the data-generating process has systematically excluded half of the world’s population, and the impact of this exclusion on women’s health and well-being. While this book is not strictly within the realm of public health, it has remained fundamental to my understanding of bias in data collection and analysis as a public health practitioner.

Honorable Mentions

It was almost impossible to narrow this list down to just five books. Here are five more public health-related books that almost (and arguably should have) made the list:

A Shot to Save the World: The Inside Story of the Life-or-Death Race for a COVID-19
, by Gregory Zuckerman

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, by Eric Klinenberg

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag

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