Global Thinkers

The Legacy of Colonialism on Global Health


In many ways, the history of global health can also be examined as a history of colonialism. In her presentation, “A Brief History of Global Health,” global health scholar Dr. Sarah McCool discusses the colonial origins of the field. Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it for economic wealth. In the 17th and 18th century, Africa, India, and the Caribbean were major zones of colonization due to their abundance of natural resources. This era of exploration and exploitation launched a wave of long-lasting health effects on indigenous populations and colonists. Suddenly, previously secluded societies were exposed to novel pathogens and urbanization. Close confinement facilitated the rapid spread of disease, and exploitation of native populations established social imbalances that perpetuated inescapable cycles of poverty. Early advancements in global health were often a result of the colonial power’s economic interest in healthy slaves. A healthy work force meant a productive, profitable work force. It was, therefore, in the colonists’ best interest to protect their investments through efforts to improve colony well-being.

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