Mary Dobson

Dr Mary Dobson is an historian of medicine with wide-ranging interests. Born in 1954, she was educated in Kent and South London before reading Geography at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she was awarded a BA with first class honours in 1976. Her postgraduate studies were undertaken on both sides of the Atlantic: in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was a Harkness Fellow at Harvard University and gained a Master’s degree in History of Science in 1980; and back in Oxford where she completed her DPhil at Nuffield College in 1982. Her undergraduate and doctoral research on the history of disease, in particular malaria, has been influential throughout her career.

Mary has held a number of academic posts and Research Fellowships over the past forty years in geography, epidemiology, health services research, and history of medicine. She was formerly Director of the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, and Reader in the History of Medicine and Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. She is currently an Affiliated Researcher at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, University of Cambridge. She is also an Affiliated Scholar at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge, an Associate Member of the Royal Society of Medicine, and a Member of the Society of Authors.

Mary is the author of a variety of publications ranging from academic articles and monographs to popular science and history. These include Contours of Death and Disease in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1997; 647pp); Disease: The Extraordinary Stories Behind History's Deadliest Killers (Quercus, 2007; Metro Books, 2013; translated into German, Japanese, and Chinese); The Story of Medicine: From Bloodletting to Biotechnology (Quercus, 2013; translated into German and Chinese); and Murderous Contagion: A Human History of Disease (Quercus, 2015). The original 2007 German translation of Disease was published as a new edition in May 2021 – Seuchen und Pandemien: die die Welt verändert haben (National Geographic Deutschland) – featuring updates and two additional chapters on COVID-19 and Diabetes by German science writer Kathrin Schwarze-Reiter. Mary has also written a series of ‘scratch ’n sniff’ Smelly Old History books for children, published by Oxford University Press in 1997-98 and translated into six languages.

In 2014, Dr Mary Dobson and her late husband, Professor Sir Christopher Dobson, jointly gave a lecture in the Darwin College Lecture Series on ‘Plagues’ and likewise at the Hay Festival of that year. Together they also wrote a chapter entitled Plagues and History: From the Black Death to Alzheimer's Disease for Plagues, a book edited by Jonathan Heeney and Sven Friedemann (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Mary and Chris’ joint venture of piecing together the history of infectious diseases with modern plagues is of great relevance to the current pandemic of COVID-19.

Mary features in a film on the Spanish flu that was produced by the University of Cambridge in November 2018. Here she discusses the history of the 1918 influenza pandemic. With over 5 million views, it continues to be the most watched film on the University’s YouTube Channel.

Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, her essay ‘Plagues, Pandemics and Planetary Health’ was included in Lucy Hawking’s book for youngsters, George and the Ship of Time (Corgi Books, 2018). An updated version, ‘Plagues, Pandemics and Planetary Health: from Contagion to COVID-19’, is now featured in Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s paperback edition of Unlocking the Universe (Puffin Books, 2021).

Dr Dobson’s next book on the history of plagues and pandemics will be published by Head of Zeus.

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