Disease, Death and Darwin: Dr. Sharon DeWitte on her upcoming talks

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Health and Survival in the Context of Medieval Mortality Crises

Kollros Auditorium, Biology Building East — Friday, Feb. 22 at 3 p.m.

Past and Present Emerging Infectious Diseases

Past and Present Emerging Infectious Diseases — Saturday, Feb. 23 at 12 p.m.

Contagion and post-screening discussion

FilmScene — Saturday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m.

Dr. Sharon DeWitte on-site at a burial crypt. — courtesy Dr. DeWitte

Rarely would the average person, when stopped on the street and asked about their ideal Friday afternoon, think to mention attending a talk about analyzing the skeletal remains of medieval Black Plague victims. However, at 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22, the people of Iowa City will have the chance to do just that, as Dr. Sharon DeWitte, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina kicks off the Iowa City Darwin Day 2019 festivities.

Iowa City Darwin Day, organized by a group made up mostly of scientists, University of Iowa professors and graduate students, is an annual event that works to celebrate science in society by providing free scientific talks and teaching workshops to the community every year in February, around the time of Charles Darwin’s birthday.

This year, Dr. DeWitte will be giving a talk about her research, titled Health and Survival in the Context of Medieval Mortality Crises.The majority of her research is rooted in the intense examination of skeletal remains of Black Plague victims, found mostly in and around London.

Despite being hundreds of years old, these remains are a treasure trove of information on how major epidemics and events of disease affect people and communities. “If a child experiences a physiological stressor, such as malnutrition or an infection, the body shifts energy and resources towards survival and maintenance and away from growth and development.” Dr. DeWitte said in an email.

Signs of these stressors include the degree of thinned enamel deposits on teeth (called “linear enamel hypoplasia”) and adult stature, as shown through the length of certain bones. Seemingly tiny clues such as these show DeWitte signs of the overall physiological stress that skeleton experienced during their lifetime, and lead to speculation about what their life, death and health were really like.

While these samples provide insight to the details behind the epidemics of history books, the lens of DeWitte’s research can be turned to the perspective of modern epidemiology. Her findings can help identify which people diseases tend to attack during major events — and why.

“One of the benefits to studying ancient epidemics is that we can see the outcomes of the associated disease over a longer time period than is possible by focusing on diseases that are occuring now,” DeWitte said. “These sorts of insights are not ethically possible, [and] for good reason, when you study living populations.”

“Knowing how diseases differently affect people in the absence of modern medical treatment is very useful for improving our understanding of the inherent biological and social factors that shape our chances of getting sick and dying during epidemics,” she said. “This might improve our efforts to improve health through a variety of mechanisms, (and) not just relying on medications once people are already sick.”

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DeWitte will also be giving a presentation after a screening of Contagion at Film Scene, at 3 p.m. on Feb. 23 as part of the Iowa City Darwin Day festivities. This screening will be a chance for Darwin Day participants to learn more about disease, how it is studied and what scientists can try to do to understand these events better.

DeWitte noted a few ways in which, although it takes place over 500 years later, the patterns of disease in Contagion are actually very similar to those in her research on the Black Plague.

“During the Black Death, wealthier people died at very high rates, but not as many wealthy people died compared to poor people.” DeWitte said. “In the movie, we see that people at the upper echelons (the US president, a CDC official) have the means to escape infection. Though not really seen in the movie, research on diseases like the Black Death in the past suggest that social inequality plays a big role in determining how many people die during epidemics, and that is still true today.”

The opportunity to get more insights like this from DeWitte will come as questions pop up at the Saturday Contagion screening. For more information on this and other Darwin Day events, visit the Iowa City Darwin Day website.

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