The Health of the Commonwealth

A Brief History of Medicine, Public Health, and Disease in Pennsylvania

James E. Higgins
Book Cover

PB: $19.95
EAN: 978-1-932304-69-5
Publication: Oct 20

Ebook: $19.95
EAN: 978-1-932304-33-6
Publication: Oct 20

138 pages
6 x 9
11 halftones

Showcasing Pennsylvania’s unique contribution to the history of public health and medicine

Read the Introduction (pdf).


“The history of medicine in Pennsylvania is no less vital to understanding the state’s past than is its political or industrial history,” writes James Higgins in The Health of the Commonwealth, his overview of medicine and public health in the state. Covering the outbreak of yellow fever in 1793 through the 1976 Legionnaires' Disease epidemic, and the challenges of the present day, he shows how Pennsylvania has played a central role in humanity’s understanding of—and progress against—disease.

Higgins provides close readings of specific medical advances—for instance, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh discovered the polio vaccine—and of disease outbreaks, like AIDS. He examines sanitation and water purification efforts, allopathic medicine and alternative therapies, and the building of the state’s tuberculosis sanitaria. Higgins also describes Native American and pre-modern European folk medicine, the rise of public health in the state, and women’s roles in both folk and scientific medicine.

The Health of the Commonwealth places Pennsylvania’s unique contribution to the history of public health and medicine in a larger narrative of health and disease throughout the United States and the world.

Published in association with the Pennsylvania Historical Association.


“Clearly written and accessible to a general audience, The Health of the Commonwealth helps to center medicine and public health, alongside traditional industries like steel and mining, in the story of the development of modern Pennsylvania. By complicating the narrative of Pennsylvania’s past and its post-industrial future, Higgins provides an important resource for students and citizens to help inform ongoing discussions about the future of the Commonwealth.”Andrew T. Simpson, Assistant Professor of History at Duquesne University

“Higgins has written a vital and necessary history of public health in Pennsylvania, the chief strength of which is a multidimensional, multivariate narrative that recognizes the contributions of women, native peoples, immigrants, and an evolving category of healthcare professionals, from physicians to nurses. No linear narrative of scientific progress, The Health of the Commonwealth argues that scientific, political, economic, and larger cultural influences inform and shape a fascinating history. This book is as remarkable for its method of investigation as for the breadth and depth of Higgins’s narrative. He writes with authority and confidence, and readers will be amply rewarded for his timely perspective.”—Dr. Robert D. Hicks, Senior Consulting Scholar and William Maul Measey Chair for the History of Medicine at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

Table of Contents

Editors’ Foreword, by Allen Dieterich-Ward and Beverly C. Tomek

Introduction: Of Plagues and Pennsylvanians
1. Medical Frontiers, 1681–1804
2. Debating Disease, 1805–1865
3. Triumph of the Allopaths, 1866–1905
4. Triumphs and Tribulations of Public Health, 1906–1945
5. Promise and Peril of Private Medicine, 1946–2017
Conclusion: Keeping the Commonwealth Healthy
Afterword: COVID-19 in Pennsylvania


About the Author(s)

James E. Higgins is a lecturer in History at Rider University and researches the history of medicine in America and abroad. He is the winner of the 2015 Philip S. Klein Pennsylvania History Prize.


In the Series

  • Pennsylvania History edited by Beverly C. Tomek and Allen Dieterich-Ward

    The Pennsylvania History series, edited by Beverly C. Tomek and Allen Dieterich-Ward, designed to make high-quality scholarship accessible for students, advances the mission of the Pennsylvania Historical Association by engaging with key social, political, and cultural issues in the history of the state and region.