My public health reading list

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Sarah Arnquist
Sarah Arnquist is editor and co-founder of the Global Health Hub. She is a health policy consultant in California. Previously, she worked in global health research at Harvard University and before that as a newspaper reporter, contributing to the New York Times and other print and online publications. She has a master’s degree in public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Photo By Joe Johnston

I majored in journalism in college because I wanted to work at a newspaper and write about poverty and social justice issues. At my first reporting job, I was assigned the health and social services (i.e. poverty) beat. I knew nothing about health care and so started reading — a lot.

Eventually, I realized public health, if done correctly, is a form of social justice. I also discovered my interest in health policy and economics. Here’s a short list of books that influenced my thinking and that I recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the U.S. health care system, the social determinants of health and global health and development.

Global health & development

The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett is a HUGE book that describes the discovery of many new diseases in the 20th century, including ebola, legionnaires disease and HIV. Something I found interesting was learning how many of today’s global health leaders like Peter Piot started their careers.

The invisible Cure by Helen Epstein examines why so little progress was made to slow the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs says poor countries are struck in a poverty trap impeding their development and the solution is a much larger injection of foreign aid than currently exists.

The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly basically lays out the argument against Sachs’ theory. Read both back to back and you’ll have a pretty good grasp on the debates in the development world.

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen it’s pretty dense on the philosophy and economics side but worth struggling through.

Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder chronicles Paul Farmer’s journey to create Partners in Health. It provides a lot of context and history about Haiti, which could be interesting now as we watch the country try to rebuild.

U.S. health care

Sick by Jonathan Cohn is a very readable history of how the U.S. health care system developed as it did. He uses the stories of real people to illustrate how the gaps in the “system.” Cohn is a fantastic reporter at The New Republic who provided some of the best play-by-play coverage of the recent battle for health reform.

Overtreated by Shannon Brownlee describes why more treatment doesn’t necessarily lead to better health. It’s a great history of jack Wennberg and the Dartmouth Atlas of Healthcare. Matthew Holt gave me the book when we first met and said it was a must read. I pass on his advice.

The Social Transformation of American Medicine by Paul Starr is the Pulitzer-prize winning treatise on the U.S. medical system. It’s an epic but worth the effort.

Polio: An American Story by David Oshinsky provides a detailed overview of the race to develop a polio vaccine. The book demonstrates the extent of the social mobilization from the presidential to grassroots levels that made such an incredible feat possible so quickly.

Social determinants of health

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is one of the best reported books I have ever read. leBlanc’s level of detail describing what it’s like to grow up poor in the Bronx makes readers feel like they know the characters personally. It’s not explicitly a public health book, but the effects of poverty, education, housing and other nonmedical determinants on health are obvious.

Rachel and her Children by Jonathan Kozol is about families living in in New York City’s homeless shelters, but it’s also a story about health.

The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down by Anne Fadiman is one of my all-time favorite books. Fadiman writes about the culture clash of Western medicine and traditional Hmong culture in Merced, Calif.

Diabesity by Fran Kaufman explores the relationship between obesity and diabetes. Kaufman is a pediatric endocrinologist in Los Angeles and had made it her passion to turn the tide on type 2 diabetes among children.

Please add to this list in the comments below. See also Karen Grepin’s must-read list for global health books. The Stanford School of Medicine Library has also created an excellent portal of resources and resources listed by different regions of the world. Definitely check it out.


  1. Posted Sep. 06, 2015 at 19:06 | Permalink

    Thank you for the list. I am an undergrad in public health and am trying to absorb as much as possible.

  2. Miyako
    Posted May. 25, 2014 at 12:03 | Permalink

    I graduated college last year and currently awaiting a final decision on a graduate program in Global Public Health. I appreciate you for taking the time out to create this list. I am really excited about reading a few. :-)

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