Best readings in global health

On May 25, 2009, in global health, links, by Karen Grepin

A few years ago I served as a teaching assistant for a global health course at Harvard. As part of admission into the course, students had to write an essay on what inspired them to take the course. I separated the applications into two piles, those that stated that Mountains beyond Mountains was their inspiration, and those that did not (roughly 1/3 vs. 2/3 split). I seem to recall that those that showed more original thinking did better than others, but I would have to re-run the numbers. While many would say that this is the book that inspired them to become interested in Global Health, I will argue that there is much better stuff out there.

In preparation for summer reading, I thought I would cast my two cents in terms of recommended readings for those interesting in global health in case you were looking for books to pack for your long trips overseas or your trips to the beach. Here would be my short list:

1. Better by Atul Gawande: While most of this book focuses on lessons from developed country settings, I think this book does more than any other I have read in recent years to push the idea of how health care can be improved. It even has a chapter in India. I love, love, love this book. Almost made me want to be a surgeon, then I remembered how much I hate gross stuff like touching other people. Ick. I’ll stick to my datasets, thank you very much.

2. Read back to back An End to Poverty (Sachs) and White Man’s Burden (Easterly): Lots of debate out there on the value of aid. I would recommend reading both of these books back to back as I did a few summers ago. I am personally biased as to which one I think is better. But, if you liked those, and for those with more of a research background, I would also recommend Reinventing Foreign Aid (ed. Easterly) from the Center for Global Development.

3. The Making of a Tropical Disease: A short history of malaria. If I ever get really bored and want to do more education (it could happen), I think I would do a doctorate in history. This book is part of a series called the biographies of disease, which I think is totally cool. This book taught me more about malaria than anything I have ever read.

4. Mosquito by Andrew Spielman: The late, and great, Andy Spielman, perhaps one of the greatest entomologist that has worked on malaria left behind this great work. Hard to explain, but basically a book about how mosquitos think.

5. Weak Links the Chain Parts I and II: Every few months I sit down and re-read these two papers by Filmer, Hammer, and Pritchett. These papers, perhaps more than anything else, have shaped my views on how health systems work (or don’t work) and the options available to improve them.

6. The battle against Hunger by Devi Sridhar. Last December I had the opportunity to attend a conference with Devi. I since read her book, which is an anthropological take on the World Bank’s feeding programs in history backed up with lots of data, making it hard for economists to dismiss (as we usually do with anthropological research). An amazing read, but spoiler alert: you will never want to work at the World Bank again if you read this book.

7. Finally, I think it is worth mentioning one more time on this blog: Access: How do good health technologies get to poor people in poor countries should also be on your list if you have not read it yet. This one is even free.

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24 Responses to “Best readings in global health”

  1. akheffernan says:

    thanks so much for this post. I just graduated from harvard college, and took a course in the fall with Paul Farmer, Arthur Kleinman, and Jim Kim (probably similar to the one you taught). though the course convinced me that I want to pursue a career in global health, I have a confession to make: i never finished Mountains Beyond Mountains (it wasn’t in the syllabus, but admitting as much would have earned shocked looks and glares from a number of members of my section.) This isn’t to say that I don’t like Farmer’s work; indeed, I am in awe of it, but i really appreciate someone pointing out other books and individuals in global health (not to mention i have a lot of free time on my hands and am looking for reading suggestions.)

  2. Karen Grepin says:

    Your secret is safe with me…. Do let me know what other reading you come across in the coming months. I would be very interested to know what you found inspiring and informative.

  3. rach says:

    Karen, thanks so much for this list. I’m in nursing school now and don’t have a lot of free time for non required reading, but I am excited about all the titles you listed!

  4. Ken says:

    Thanks for this insightful post. I just graduated from college and will begin my PhD studies in the fall and just found myself an awesome summer reading list…

  5. Shekib Jami says:

    great post Karen and great suggestions for what to read next…i will try to get a few of those for my trip to Australia.. I would still argue that Mountains beyond Mountains is truly inspirational for anyone who wants to be involved with global health. I have read it twice (most recently for public health class at UC Davis).

  6. Theresa B says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. Some fresh ideas for summer reads. We offer a global health programs for teens and secondary teachers in Seattle-and our clients appreciate our collection of ever-updated suggested reading. Enjoy!

  7. Tom Stocker says:

    Good suggestions, I have to say I enjoy reading Farmer, not many people with strong passionate human rights perspectives in the literature. Also great to get so many examples of Western public health failures so we know what kind of thing to watch out for?

    There’s a few others I’d tag on there if there’s room:
    – The truth about drug companies Marcia Angell. Possibly augment that with a few readings in the anthropology of corporate drug pushing practices – Andriana Petryna, David Healy…
    – Scientists Greater than Einstein, by Billy Woodward.

    Both related to the power of health technologies and how health research gest done, but both very accessible and fun reads!

  8. Tom Stocker says:

    I’m trying to learn about the politics of global health, health economics, epidemiology, health systems, effective health interventions, public health etc. to help with the bumpy road to universal access…

    Can anyone recommend some denser/ more theoretical or mathsy/rigorous textbooks or academic books that I might come accross on a course such as the one Karen teaches? Are there any opencourseware units that give good readings and questions etc.? Only really putting in 5 hours a week if that helps guide suggestions. Have undergraduate training in economics and politics and a little bit of science and maths. Apart from being genuinely interested, I also want to get an overview of the fields to know which ones might be worth pursuing with more dedication!

    Many thanks 🙂

  9. […] technologies get to poor people in poor countries?, a book listed on Karen Grepin‘s excellent global health recommended reading list, but only just now have gotten around to reading […]

  10. YusufM says:

    Great selection, but can I suggest one more for your list? It tops my list, even above Mountains Beyond Mountains.

    An Imperfect Offering by James Orbinski

    “In 1988, James Orbinski, then a medical student in his twenties, embarked on a year-long research trip to Rwanda, a trip that would change who he would be as a doctor and as a man. Investigating the conditions of pediatric AIDS in Rwanda, James confronted widespread pain and suffering, much of it preventable, much of it occasioned by political and economic corruption. Fuelled by the injustice of what he had seen in Rwanda, Orbinski helped establish the Canadian chapter of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/MSF). As a member of MSF he travelled to Peru during a cholera epidemic, to Somalia during the famine and civil war, and to Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

    In April 1994, James answered a call from the MSF Amsterdam office. Rwandan government soldiers and armed militias of extremist Hutus had begun systematically to murder Tutsis. While other foreigners were evacuated from Rwanda, Orbinski agreed to serve as Chef de Mission for MSF in Kigali. As Rwanda descended into a hell of civil war and genocide, he and his team worked tirelessly, tending to thousands upon thousands of casualties. In fourteen weeks 800,000 men, women and children were exterminated. Half a million people were injured, and millions were displaced. The Rwandan genocide was Orbinski’s undoing. Confronted by indescribable cruelty, he struggled to regain his footing as a doctor, a humanitarian and a man. In the end he chose not to retreat from the world, but resumed his work with MSF, and was the organization’s president when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.”

  11. Natalie says:


    I am interested in starting a PH reading group to challenge each other to get through a hefty sum of literature over the next. You provided some great material, but I am curious if you had additional readings you might be willing to share that may not top the lists but are still a worthwhile read. We are hoping to cover everything from the history of medicine/public health to economics and development and, of course, we can’t leave out ethics.


  12. Vikky says:

    RT @KarenGrepin: Best readings in global health

  13. Krisha Patel says:

    Note to self: this should be your next reading list.

  14. Sian says:

    Best readings in global health

  15. Karen Grepin says:

    @nprGlobalHealth Here are some: and I also really liked:

  16. Thank you for the recommendations @KarenGrepin – Best readings in global health

  17. Nav says:

    I have been looking to read more on global health but I always end up in the politics section in bookstores! Thank you so much for this list! It definitely will help students like me learn more. I think Sara E. Davies did an excellent job in Global Politics of Health … there is nothing in her book I think she did not cover. She really did a critical analysis of absolutely everything surrounding global health! Excellent read.

  18. Sophie says:

    Finished Atul Gawande's "Better," off a suggestion from NYU's @KarenGrepin's "Best readings in global health"- ; both

  19. […] to start: The Best Readings in Global Health is an overview of books the author recommends and a great place to begin learning about global […]

  20. Yuritzy says:

    I will like to recommend Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. It is a wonderful book for those who want to understand more about globalization and Corporatocracy

  21. Josh says:

    Thanks for this list. Just finished “The Making of a Tropical Disease” which was great.

  22. Alison says:

    The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid. Great overview of the world’s health systems and very readable for someone more interested in epidemiology and less enthused about health systems! There’s also a PBS special that’s very interesting and essentially a condensed version of the book.

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