CRH was formed in 1987 by the National Association of Medical and Dental Activists (NAMDA), an organisation which was formed in reaction to the Medical and Dental Association. At that point CRH was called CHESS (The Centre for Health and Social Studies); CRH was funded by foreign donors and the centre existed primarily for research and advocacy. CHESS was linked to the Department of Paediatrics under Professor Jerry Coovadia, and based at the University of Natal.
In 1994 Professor Hugh Philpott, a leading expert in Maternal Health took over directorship. Other key changes at this time included access to local funding, a change in the focus of the organisation’s interventions to the district health system, and a growing commitment to taking up the challenge of rural health care. In 1998 Professor Steve Reid, a rural health activist of long standing and experience, took over the helm. In 2001 the name of the organisation changed to the Centre for Rural Health (CRH), expressing the organisation’s growing commitment to improving the health care offered to impoverished people living in rural and underserved areas.
2004 saw further change as a number of universities based in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal merged to form the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). CRH is now located within the School of Nursing and Public Health within the college of Health Sciences.
Professor Inge Petersen assumed the role of Director in 2016.
The ambit of the CRH has since expanded to encompass the UKZN strategic thrust areas and includes research and programmes in Health Systems Strengthening, Human Resources for Health and Health and Social Justice.