Skip to main content

History of Health Sciences


This graduate program will train students to examine the history of health sciences (medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, alternative healing, and biomedical research) from a variety of critical approaches. Doctoral students will be prepared to undertake a wide variety of professional careers in academia, industry, government, and communications. For those who choose academic research and teaching in the field, this program will lay the foundation for them to create and interpret new knowledge as scholars and to share and disseminate their knowledge of the field as educators. Those who choose other career paths will learn to incorporate historical perspectives into their understanding and practice of their respective fields, as will students enrolled in the master's program for professionals and medical students who take elective courses in the program. The physical and intellectual location of this history program within one of the nation's leading medical schools affords the opportunity to advance the historical analysis and understanding of biomedical sciences, clinical practices, and health policies.

Degree Programs

History of Health Sciences offers two degree programs. The doctorate program leads to the PhD. Students may also pursue a doctorate in History of Health Sciences jointly with a degree in Medicine, leading to a combined MD-PhD. Candidates for the joint degree must apply separately to the Program in History of Health Sciences and to the School of Medicine . A master's degree (MA) is offered as well, either full time, or part time to individuals who already hold a doctoral degree in medicine, science, or other professional field (e.g., public health, nursing, pharmacy).

Students enrolled in the PhD program are eligible for financial support administered through the Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine at UCSF. Students may be required to work as teaching assistants or research assistants in return for the payment of fees and stipends. MD-PhD students are also eligible for funding during the doctoral phase of their work toward the joint degree. Students enrolled in the MA program must provide their own funding.

Ph.D. Requirements 

Admission requirements

Since the history of health sciences is an interdisciplinary field, students from a wide variety of academic backgrounds in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences are encouraged to apply. Students must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university with a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0 (on a 4.0 scale) or the equivalent from a non-U.S. institution. Students with master's degrees are encouraged to apply, but the Program in History of Health Sciences will only award credit for graduate work done at another institution under certain circumstances. Students must also have taken the GRE General Test within the last 5 years.

Students are admitted to the Program in History of Health Sciences biennially (2005, 2007, etc.). By admitting new students only every other year, the Program ensures that the student to faculty ratio remains low, which enables students to work closely with faculty on an individual basis.

Academic residence

The minimum residence requirement is two years of full-time study (minimum of two courses per term).


Upon entering the program, the student will be assigned a faculty mentor (from the department's core faculty) who will serve as the primary advisor during the first two years of coursework and who will guide the student through the successful passage of the general examinations. After the general examinations, the student will choose his/her dissertation advisor, who will work closely with the student to formulate his/her thesis project. After departmental approval of the student's dissertation prospectus in the third year, two additional faculty members will be added to the student's dissertation committee, which will be composed as follows: the dissertation advisor, a second consultant (from the History of Health Sciences core or affiliated faculty), and a third reader (from outside the program, usually from Medical Anthropology, or from Berkeley's History Department, or from another department at UCSF).


Students must complete a minimum of twelve courses (48 credits, excluding professional skills and language courses) during the first two years of study; more courses may be taken, in accordance with the individual student's schedule and interests. All students must take three required courses: Introduction to History of Health Sciences I, Introduction to History of Health Sciences II, and Research Methods in the first year (12 credits total). During the summer after the first year, students are expected to undertake a research project (designed and begun in the spring Methods course) and to produce a 25-30 page paper based on that original archival research. At least five courses (20 credits) are electives, chosen from offerings at UCSF in history of health sciences, medical anthropology, sociology, and global health sciences, and at Berkeley in the history department; two of these must be graduate seminars at Berkeley (History 275 and History 280) to satisfy the third field requirement (see below). Undergraduate courses at Berkeley may be taken with special permission of the Director of Graduate Studies and the instructor. Two two-term courses (16 credits) will be reading courses taken in the second half of the second year, in preparation for the general examinations in their chosen fields of history of health sciences (see below). Students should take into consideration their proposed fields of study when selecting their elective courses. Students are also strongly encouraged to take additional courses in Professional Skills (UCSF Anthropology 218) and/or Teaching History at the University (Berkeley History 300).

In addition to the formal coursework, students are expected to attend the Berkeley/UCSF colloquia in the history of science, technology, and medicine in both years one and two of the program.

Assessment after the first year

Students are required to maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0. At the end of the first year, students will receive a written evaluation of their status in the program, based on grades received in coursework, from the Graduate Committee. Students will be judged to be making “excellent progress,” “satisfactory progress,” or “unsatisfactory progress.” Those students who receive an evaluation of “unsatisfactory progress” must appear before the Graduate Committee and be prepared to do remedial work during the summer in order to continue in the program. Students who earn an evaluation of “excellent progress” at the end of the first year may petition for academic credit of up to 16 credits for graduate work in history of medicine or history of science done at another institution

General examination

At the end of the second year, students will be examined in three fields of study: two in the history of health sciences and a third in another area of history.

Competence in the third field will be demonstrated by successful completion of two graduate seminars in one of Berkeley's History Program Fields. Ordinarily, the student will take History 275 and History 280 in the chosen field of study.

The two health sciences fields must be selected from the following list; a student may petition the Graduate Committee for approval of a self-designed field:

  • History of American medicine
  • History of European medicine
  • History of public health
  • History of the life sciences
  • History of gender and the body
  • History of the institutions and disciplines of medicine
  • History of alternative healing
  • Medical anthropology

To prepare for the examinations in the two fields in history of health sciences, students will take reading courses with professors from the department's core and affiliated faculty in the second year of the program. These reading courses (one for each field) are taken for two consecutive terms and are designed as individual tutorials.

The examinations in each field will consist of a three-hour written examination and a half-hour oral examination. The written examinations will be graded (pass/fail) by the faculty member who directed the student's reading course in that field and by one other faculty member. Both instructors who directed the student's reading courses will be present at the oral examinations, along with a third faculty member; these three individuals make up the evaluating committee. The exams are intended to assess the candidate's mastery of the factual information, theoretical concepts, and historiographical approaches in each field. Upon the completion of the written and oral examinations, the evaluating committee will recommend:

  • that the student passed the general examination and should be continued in the program, or
  • that the student failed the examination, but should be re-examined within three months, or
  • that the student failed the examination and should be discontinued without re-examination.

Foreign language requirement

Students must demonstrate reading knowledge of a foreign language other than English. Competence must be demonstrated by passing an examination, consisting of translating two pages of text from the foreign language into English in a one-hour time period (use of dictionaries is allowed). This examination must be taken before the student takes the general examinations. Students without adequate language preparation may enroll in a language course at Berkeley (e.g., French for Reading Knowledge).


The dissertation is the heart of the doctoral program. The student is expected to undertake extensive independent research to advance an original contribution or a new interpretation of a chosen topic in the history of health sciences. In year three, the student will compose a written dissertation prospectus describing the specific aims and conceptual framework of the proposed research project, including a discussion of the major sources to be used and a timetable for completion. The student is expected to meet on a monthly basis with the dissertation advisor to discuss progress toward completion of the dissertation. Please refer to the “Advising” section above for information on the selection of a thesis advisor and the composition of the thesis committee. The dissertation should be completed by the end of the fifth year; students with unusual circumstances may petition for one additional year, to submit the dissertation at the end of the sixth year.

MD/PhD in History of Health Sciences

The Program in History of Health Sciences (located in the Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine) offers medical students the opportunity to earn a PhD in History of Health Sciences in addition to the MD degree.       

If accepted by both the School of Medicine and the History Program, students will receive full payment of all tuition and fees plus an annual stipend for living expenses for the four years of graduate study. This program does not cover the costs of medical school, but students are encouraged to apply for financial aid and other grants and scholarships.

MD/PhD students will complete the first two or three years of the medical school curriculum, then they will join the PhD program in History of Health Sciences. The PhD program begins with two years of coursework in preparation for the qualifying exams. After the qualifying exams, students work independently on researching and writing their dissertations. When the dissertation is completed, students return to the medical school to complete the MD curriculum.

Students should apply separately to the two programs, alerting each to their interest in the combined MD/PhD. Students need not submit GRE scores; MCAT scores are sufficient for both programs. The application committees of both the MD and PhD programs will work together to process these applications. 

Dr. Brian Dolan, Director of Graduate Studies

Master of Arts for Professionals Requirements

Academic residence

Students enrolled in this program may complete the requirements in one year of full-time study or in two years of half-time study. Full-time study consists of two courses per term; half-time study consists of one course per term.


Upon entering the program, the student will be assigned an advisor (from the department's core faculty) who will serve as the primary advisor for the duration of the program.


The master's degree candidate follows the same curriculum as that outlined for the first year doctoral students. Students must take a total of six courses (24 credits). Three of these courses must be the required sequence of Introduction to History of Health Sciences I, Introduction to History of Health Sciences II, and Research Methods. The remaining three courses are electives chosen from offerings at UCSF in history of health sciences, medical anthropology, and sociology. At the end of the third term (or sixth term, for those enrolled half-time), students will submit a master's thesis (minimum of 10,000 words) on a subject to be determined in consultation with the student's advisor. A seminar paper may be expanded to fill this requirement. Students must maintain a minimum grade point average of 3.0 in order to receive the MA degree.

There is no foreign language requirement for the professional master's degree.

Former History of Health Sciences Graduates and their Dissertation Titles