FilmScene Iowa City, IA


Sharon N. DeWitte

Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of South Carolina

Contagion— Lessons of the Black Death

Paleoepidemiologist Sharon DeWitte explains how the demographics of past plagues can inform how we handle emerging epidemics. Co-presented by Iowa City Darwin Day, an annual celebration of science and its contributions to humanity.

FilmScene Iowa City, IA

Film Synopsis

Director Steven Soderbergh’s disaster thriller follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days.

When Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to Minnesota from a Hong Kong business trip, she attributes the malaise she feels to jet lag. However, two days later, Beth is dead, and doctors tell her husband (Matt Damon) that they have no idea what killed her. Soon, many others start to exhibit the same symptoms, and a worldwide pandemic erupts. Doctors try to contain the lethal microbe, but society begins to collapse as a blogger (Jude Law) fans the flames of paranoia.

About the Speaker

Dr. Sharon DeWitte's research specialties are bioarchaeology, paleoepidemiology, and paleodemography. She engages in the reconstruction of life, health, disease, and demography in the past using assemblages of human skeletal remains, and is ultimately interested in the ways in which research on past populations informs our understanding of and promotes health among living people. Her research examines the biological, environmental, economic, and social factors that affect and interact with variation in health and mortality; the ecology, epidemiology, and consequences of diseases in past human populations; and the co-evolution of humans and pathogens. For the last 15 years, her research has primarily centered around the Black Death (c. 1346-1353): the first outbreak of the Second Pandemic of Plague, and one of the most devastating and influential epidemics in human history. Her research on diet, migration, and demography in medieval London is currently funded by the National Science Foundation. Recent publications include "Stress, sex, and plague: patterns of developmental stress and survival in pre-and post-Black Death London", American Journal of Human Biology, 2018, and "Archaeological evidence of epidemics can inform future epidemics", Annual Review of Anthropology, 2016.