In the early days, before the Department was set up, public health was taught by senior government health officers on a part-time basis in the medical school. Dr Gilbert Brooke was the first lecturer in public health. Then, the teaching of public health focused on hygiene, sanitation and infectious diseases. In 1936, (Col) Dr John William Scharff, who was lecturing on public health, introduced a health and sanitary survey of rural villages as part of the curriculum. The Second World War interuppted medical education from December 1941 to 1946.

The Department started as the Department of Social Medicine and Public Health in 1948, Dr John H Strahan was appointed as its first professor. In 1947, a Commission was established under Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders to enquire into and make recommendations concerning university education in Malaya and Singapore. It recommended the amalgamation of King Edward VII College of Medicine and Raffles College to form the University of Malaya.

In October 1949, the University of Malaya was established. The King Edward VII College of Medicine became the Faculty of Medicine in University of Malaya. Subsequently two divisions of the University of Malaya were formed, one in Kuala Lumpur and the other in Singapore. In 1960, the Governments of Singapore and the Federation of Malaya both indicated their intention that the Singapore Division and the Kuala Lumpur Division of the University of Malaya should become autonomous, separate, national universities in their respective countries. The Singapore Division eventually became the University of Singapore and the Kuala Lumpur Division remain as University of Malaya.

The Department of Social and Preventive Medicine was established in the Kuala Lumpur Division of the University of Malaya in 1964. Associate Professor Winifred Danaraj was appointed as the Head of Department, she was the wife of the first Dean of Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

The department are involved in both Undergraduate and Postgraduate teachings. It continue its focus on public health in the rural areas, the undergraduate students were required to conduct rural health survey in remote districts in Malaysia. With the development in Malaysia and the changing time, the programme evolved in to Community Residency Programme (CRP) and Organisation and Management of Health Services (OHMS).

Postgraduate in Public Health
In 1953, the postgraduate Diploma of Public Health (D.P.H.) course was inaugurated with assistance provided by the World Health Organization. It was the first diploma course offered in postgraduate medicine in University of Malaya. Whereas public health doctors had previously received postgraduate training in the United Kingdom and the West, the course in Singapore was specially designed to suit conditions in the Far East and the tropics. During the twenty years from its inception a total of 145 doctors had successfully completed the D.P.H. course.

The Master of Public Health Programme was started in 1974 to cater to the needs of the country. There are now more than 560 Master of Public Health amd Master of Medical Science in Public Health graduates, they originate from Malaysia and around the world. They now serve with distinction in the Ministry of Health, universities in Malaysia and around the world and various National and International bodies, e.g. the Malaysian Armed Forces, WHO and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), and in town and city councils.