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Science, Technology and Medicine in the Cold War

Module titleScience, Technology and Medicine in the Cold War
Module codeHIH2019A
Academic year2019/0
Module staff

Dr Dora Vargha (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Much of how we understand the world today, the technologies we use daily and the ways in which we care for our health have their roots in the Cold War of the 20th century. How did scientific and medical practice and technological innovation interact with Cold War politics, society and culture? How did science, technology and medicine shape the Cold War, and how has scientific practice and thought shaped by the geopolitics of the era? Going beyond the space race and nuclear armament, this module examines the question with a broad geographical focus by looking at issues in science, medicine and technology that became central to the Cold War era between 1945 and 1989.

Module aims - intentions of the module

We will draw on ground-breaking research in the fields of history and science and technology studies to understand science, medicine and technology during the Cold War and the ways in which scientists, technologies, and scientific institutions shaped—and were shaped by—the Cold War. We will explore the changing relationships between Cold War geopolitics and science, medicine and technology through key issues and events on both sides of the ideological divide.

The course follows Cold War concerns that entwined the scientific modernism of the postwar era with the dystopic effects of World War II, and the ever-present anxieties of the nuclear threat. Through the study of primary sources and key secondary literature, we will consider the emergence of big science; the role of the military-industrial complex in shaping scientific work; the ethics of nuclear science and medical research; the threat of global epidemics in a divided world; and ideology and political values that framed scientific and healthcare systems.  Throughout the course, you will gain an introduction to broader questions in the history of science, technology and medicine, which in turn will enable them to develop a sophisticated understanding of historical analyses that lie in the intersection of multiple subfields.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Have a detailed knowledge of the main themes in the subject, together with a very close knowledge of the areas selected for essay and presentation work
  • 2. Trace the changing nature of, and approaches to, science, technology and medicine in the Cold War

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 3. Analyse the key developments in the Cold War history of science, technology and medicine
  • 4. Handle profoundly different approaches to scientific research, regulation and innovation
  • 5. Understand and deploy complex historical terminology in a comprehensible manner

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Independently study and also work within a group, including the presentation of material for group discussion, developed through the mode of learning
  • 7. Digest, select and organise material to produce, to a deadline, a coherent and cogent argument, developed through the mode of assessment
  • 8. Present arguments orally, and to work in a group

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • The ethics of human experiments
  • The legacy of Hiroshima
  • Big science: physics and mathematics
  • The social sciences in the Cold War
  • The Atomic Age: Radiation treatment
  • Brainwashing
  • Science Fiction
  • Scientists in peace movements
  • Cybernetics
  • The Space Race
  • Spies like us: surveillance technologies
  • Agriculture and environmental engineering
  • The Cold War politics of polio vaccine development
  • Life on ice
  • Disease eradication campaigns: smallpox and malaria
  • Scramble for Antarctica
  • Love and Marriage: Emotional health and families in the Cold War
  • The International Geophysical Year
  • Chernobyl

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching2222 x 1 hour lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching2211 x 2 hour seminars
Guided independent study22Web-based activities located on ELE – preparation for seminars and presentations
Guided independent study234Reading and preparation for seminars and presentations


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay plan500 words1-7Oral and written feedback

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay303000 words1-6Oral and written feedback
Group presentation2025 minutes1-7Peer-assessed and moderated by tutor
Exam502 hours1-6Written


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay 3000 word essay1-6Referral/Deferral period
Group presentationScript as for individual presentation, equivalent to 10 minutes1-7Referral/Deferral period
Exam2 hours1-7Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

The re-assessment consists of a 3000 word essay and 2-hour exam, as in the original assessment, but replaces participation in the group presentation with a written script that could be delivered in such a presentation and which is the equivalent of 10 minutes of speech.

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Audra J. Wolfe, Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America. Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013
  • Sarah Bridger, Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015
  • Naomi Oreskes and John Krige, eds. Science and Technology in the Global Cold War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014
  • Jon Agar, Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012
  • Young-sun Hong, Cold War Germany, the Third World and the Global Humanitarian Regime.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Rebecca Lemov, “’Hypothetical Machines’: The Science Fiction Dreams of Cold War Social Science,” Isis vol. 101, no. 2 (2010): 401-411
  • Simone Turchetti and Peder Roberts eds, The Surveillance Imperative: Geosciences during the Cold War and Beyond. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
  • David Serlin, The Other Arms Race. In: Replaceable You. Engineering the Body in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens after Chernobyl. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Paul Erickson, “Mathematical Models, Rational Choice, and the Search for Cold War Culture,” Isis 101 (2010): 386–392
  • Erez Manela, "A Pox on Your Narrative: Writing Disease Control into Cold War History." Diplomatic History 34, no. 2 (April 2010): 299-323.
  • Michael Gordin, Red Cloud at Dawn. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010
  • Gabrielle Hecht ed. Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,  2011
  • Marcos Cueto, Cold War, Deadly Fevers : Malaria Eradication in Mexico, 1955-1975.  Washington, D.C.; Baltimore: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
  • D.S. Jones, and R.L. Martensen. “Human Radiation Experiments and the Formation of Medical Physics at the University of California, San Francisco and Berkeley, 1937-1962.” In Useful Bodies: Humans in the Service of Medical Science in the Twentieth Century, ed. Jordon Goodman, Anthony McElligott, and Lara Marks. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Cold War, science, technology, medicine

Credit value30
Module ECTS


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