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Wenner-Gren Dissertation Research Grantee in the News

February 19, 2008

Dr. Sharon N DeWitte , Assistant Professor, University at Albany, SUNY is a biological anthropologist with interests in human osteology, paleodemography, paleopathology, and infectious and epidemic diseases. She is currently studying the mortality patterns of the Black Death of 1347-1351 using large skeletal samples from England and Denmark.

Dr. DeWitte's is interested in infectious diseases in past human populations, particularly how individual variation affects risk of morbidity and mortality in epidemics. She received a Dissertation Research Grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation (2004) to investigate the mortality patterns of the Black Death of 1347–1351 and answer several longstanding questions, including whether the Black Death was selective with respect to pre-existing health conditions or if it killed people indiscriminately, as is often assumed. She addressed these questions drawing from a sample of Black Death skeletons from the East Smithfield cemetery in London, one of the few large excavated cemeteries in Europe with strong documentary and archaeological evidence linking it to the epidemic. Through a combination of human osteology, paleopathology, and paleodemography her analyses revealed that the Black Death did not, in fact, kill indiscriminately: individuals who were already in poor health before the epidemic were more likely to die during the Black Death than their healthier peers.

The results of this work were recently published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and picked up by the New York Times as a newsworthy scientific finding.

Click here for the full New York Times Article.