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J Epidemiol Community Health. 2007 September; 61(9): 754–756.
PMCID: PMC2659993

“The Public Health Call”

Short abstract

The new ballad “The Public Health Call” urges public health personnel to work together and take inspiration from some of the great figures of the past

Keywords: public health, arts, music, history, song

The role of popular ballads in recording, preserving and communicating history is long established and predates the development of widespread literacy, let alone the internet. Ballads also play a role in establishing or challenging social norms. However, singing in an informal setting has declined substantially in the face of more formalised modes of entertainment, notably television.

The key themes of ballads reflect the central themes of life and death. They deal with war, love and daring deeds. They can be serious, humorous, congratulatory or insulting. There are, however, very few ballads that deal with public health, either in general or specifically. Illness and death are referred to regularly in ballads and songs, and individual diseases sometimes can be identified, most famously in the children's song “Ring a Ring a Roses” which is associated with pneumonic plague.1

Most traditional ballads are anonymous, but there is a strong contemporary tradition of composing folk ballads. Song writers and performers such as Pete Seeger (USA) and Tommy Sands (Ireland) see themselves as modern day troubadours and chroniclers of turmoil and change.2,3 They also have taken a lead in preserving traditional songs and writing contemporary songs which encourage and promote social change. As Seeger and Reiser have stated, “each step forward came as a result of enormous work and courage, some bloodshed, and music like this which kept people's spirits alive”.2

The newly composed song that follows, “The Public Health Call” (a version of which sung by the author is available at is set to a traditional English tune which is used in a sword dance in Earsdon in the county of Northumberland.4 The tune has also been used to accompany a contemporary “calling‐on” song5 and can be sampled on a number of websites.6 In the folk tradition a “calling‐on” song is used to gather an audience and introduce characters. In the song presented here, the theme of “calling‐on” is used to call public health people together and urge them to take inspiration both from some of the great figures of the sanitary revolution and the common people who benefited from and supported their work.

The individuals mentioned in the song led some of the major public health advances that we have seen in past centuries (box 1). Their individual histories are worthy of study by all those who seek to understand or practice public health. Indeed, it has been argued elsewhere that an appreciation of public health history is an essential ingredient in developing an effective response to the major public health problems of today.7

“The Public Health Call”

Come all of you men and women

Who work for the welfare of all

Come and list' to my song while I tell you

Of how we must answer the call

We have all come from far distant places

And travelled by road and by rail

We have all come to learn from each other

That hygiene and health may prevail

When Jenner he did walk among us

He studied both cuckoo and pox

Sarah Nelmes helped him conquer the virus

Though many his efforts did mock

John Snow he is a great hero

His deeds they are famed and renowned

But without the poor widow of Hampstead

The truth it would never ‘ave been known

Kitty Wilkinson she came from Ireland

In Liverpool cholera did meet

Her washhouse which shone like a beacon

Helped the people the peril defeat

Edwin Chadwick he was but a lawyer

He knew naught of physic or blade

But his efforts they laid the foundation

On which all of our progress was made

So never forget where we came from

And the heroes we honour today

And the plain people who stood right beside them

Together they showed us the way

For health is the real wealth of nations

That's a truth that none can deny

So let all of our people be healthy

And let poverty perish and die

Note on performance

In performing the song it is recommended that you do so with a firm voice, a clear demonstration of pride and a strong belief in the future.

“The Public Health Call” performed by the author is available at

Box 1: Dramatis personae

Edward Jenner (1749–1823) was a country doctor in Gloucestershire, England who developed an effective means of smallpox vaccination using cowpox material taken from the hand of Sarah Nelmes, a local dairymaid. In addition to his work on smallpox, Jenner also studied natural history and was the first to accurately describe the nesting habits of the cuckoo.

John Snow (1813–1858) was a doctor in London during the cholera outbreak of 1854. He correctly identified that cholera was a waterborne disease. Susannah Eley, the “widow of Hampstead”, provided the key piece of evidence after she died having drunk water brought to her from the pump in Broad Street, Soho.

Kitty Wilkinson (1786–1860) was an Irish woman from Derry who migrated to Liverpool, England as a child. Although not trained at all in healthcare, during the cholera outbreak of 1832 she established the first public washhouse. Her efforts helped the poor of her locality to have clean clothes and bed‐linen. The public washhouse movement spread across the world as a direct consequence of her efforts

Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890) was a lawyer who had a profound influence on the social landscape of Britain in the mid‐1800s. His landmark report on sanitary conditions in 1842 was a precursor to his enormous influence on the very first Public Health Acts which were passed by parliament at Westminster in 1848.

Supplementary Material

[web only tables]


Competing interests: None declared.

“The Public Health Call” performed by the author is available at


1. Opie I, Opie P. The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951
2. Seeger P, Reiser B. Carry it on: a history in song and picture of the working men and women of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985
3. Sands T. The songman: a journey in Irish music. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2005
4. The Watersons Frost and fire: a calender of ritual and magical songs. TSCD136. London: Topic Records, 1990
5. Hutchings A. A calling song from the album Hark! The village wait. Steeleye Span, 79052. Newton, New Jersey: Shanachie, 1991
6. Steeleye Span Hark! The village wait. (accessed 23 June 2007)
7. Scally G, Womack J. The importance of the past in public health. J Epidemiol Community Health 2004. 58751–755.755 [PMC free article] [PubMed]

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