UH Hilo launches new medical anthropology program

Medical Anthropology, a subfield of anthropology, focuses on the evolution of humans and pathogens, the effects of globalization on health disparities, and the health legacies of colonialism—all topical issues here in Hawai‘i.

 Two faculty (Lynn Morrison and Dan Brown) and three students do a blood pressure test on one of the students.
(l-r standing) Lynn Morison and Daniel Brown, both professors of anthropology, with three students demonstrating blood pressure testing. Courtesy photo.

By Susan Enright.

The anthropology department at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo will be offering a new academic program starting this fall that focuses on different influences on people’s health. The new track, called Medical Anthropology, explores how health and illness are shaped, experienced, and understood within the context of culture, ethnicity, socioeconomic and political factors.

Medical Anthropology, a subfield of anthropology, focuses on the evolution of humans and pathogens, the effects of globalization on health disparities, and the health legacies of colonialism—all topical issues here in Hawai‘i. Students from a wide range of majors may be interested in this track.

This area of expertise may appeal to students interested in careers as health services directors, health and social policy analysts, health care consultants, data analysts, social workers, health librarians, acupuncturists, and naturopaths. UH Hilo students interested in pursuing a graduate degree in public health may also find that the study of medical anthropology will prepare them well for future careers.

Lynn Morrison
Lynn Morrison

“All of the courses in this track have Hawaiian content,” says Lynn Morrison, professor of anthropology and chair of the department who will be teaching courses in the new program. “Increasing information and education about the cultural and biological basis of health has the potential to have impact on the local community if our future health-care professionals are coming out of this track. They will be trained to better implement health promotion and prevention.”

Morrison’s areas of expertise are in biomedical and physical anthropology, women’s health, HIV/AIDS, and gender and sexuality. Her recent research topics include inquiry into menopause symptoms, blood pressure and health risk in Hawai‘i’s multi-ethnic population; domestic violence in Hilo; HIV/AIDS needs assessment in Hilo; and breastfeeding practices of young women in Hilo.

Morrison says medical anthropologists have knowledge and skills that lend themselves to a variety of careers, from medicine and medical research to academia and government. These skills include analyzing cultural development and the effect of culture on health, understanding medical data, investigating the spread of disease, studying alternatives to modern medicine, and communicating across cultures and languages.

The Medical Anthropology Track Curriculum 

Courses in the new medical anthropology track include:

  • Cultural Anthropology
  • Archeology
  • Human Evolution
  • Introduction to Language
  • Human Biological Variation
  • Medical Anthropology
  • Physical Anthropology Laboratory
  • Global Health in Evolutionary Perspective
  • History of Anthropological Theory
  • Applied Anthropology

The Applied Anthropology course, taught by Morrison, includes an applied learning experience, where classroom instruction is supplemented with real world application—students collect data from the local community to produce a health promotion or prevention program.

Daniel Brown
Daniel Brown

Two courses—Evolutionary Medicine and Global Health in Evolutionary Perspective—are new in the last two years and taught by Daniel Brown, a professor of anthropology who has done extensive research on health issues found in the East Hawai‘i community.

Brown’s research focuses on human adaptability to physical and psychosocial stress, as well as on ethnic health disparities. He is particularly interested in the interactions between biology and culture, and the impact of those interactions on health.

“My research grows out of my interest in how humans, individually and in populations, adapt to environmental stress,” says Brown. “I have carried out research on adaptation to physical stressors, such as high altitude hypoxia, cold and heat, but my main interest has been in adaptation to psychosocial stress.”


For more information on the Medical Anthropology Track, contact Lynn Morrison or Daniel Brown.


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.