History of the Foundation

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WGF Symposium #138 Group Photo
Front: L. Obbink, S. Lindenbaum, A. Herring, A. Swedlund, J. Littleton, M-E Kelm, R. Barrett, L. Sawchuk, A. Noymer Back: J. Trostle, C. Briggs, K. Lepani, C. Stephens, L. Aiello, A. Castro, M. Singer, S. Goodreau, W. Anderson, M. Cueto


September 14-21, 2007
Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch, Tucson, Arizona


PUBLICATION: Plagues and Epidemics: Infected Spaces Past and Present. D. Ann Herring and Alan C. Swedlund, editors. Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series. Berg Publishers: Oxford and New York. 2010.



Leslie C. Aiello (Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA)
Warwick Anderson (U. Wisconsin, USA)
Ronald Barrett (Emory U., USA)
Charles L. Briggs (U. California-Berkeley, USA)
Arachu Castro (Harvard Medical School, USA)
Marcos Cueto (Cayetano Heredia U., Peru)
Steven M. Goodreau (U. Washington, USA)
Ann Herring, organizer (McMaster U., Canada)
Mary-Ellen Kelm (Simon Fraser U., Canada)
Katherine Lepani (Australian National U.)
Shirley Lindenbaum (Graduate Center, City U. of New York, USA)
Judith Littleton (U. Auckland, New Zealand)
Andrew Noymer (U. California-Irvine, USA)
Larry Sawchuk (U. Toronto-Scarborough, Canada)
Merrill Singer (U. Connecticut, USA)
Christianne V. Stephens, monitor (McMaster U., Canada)
Alan Swedlund, organizer (Emeritus, U. Massachusetts, USA)
James Trostle (Trinity College, USA)

Final Report

The problem of plague in human societies, past and present, is an important site for anthropological theorizing because it sits at the juncture between the microcosmos, evolution, and human behaviour. It forms a natural bridge between the nature/culture divide. Yet, the concept of plague has received little in the way of focused attention in anthropological thinking. This symposium brought anthropologists and those from other fields together to address one of the central concerns of 21st century western society. Our goal was to explore the concept of plagues and the many historical and contemporary settings in which plagues occur, and to ask whether the concept remains salient today.

By the third quarter of the 20th century, interest in infectious disease had waned – at least in a western medical context – and epidemiologic transition theory had relegated plague and famine to the past. Patterns of disease and death were understood to be dominated by ‘degenerative and man-made diseases'. Then HIV/AIDS emerged to shake the foundations of epidemiological thought. We now live in an era obsessed with killer germs. There is a new sense of vulnerability and uncertainty with respect to infectious disease, rekindling fears of mortality on the scale of historic plagues and spurring research into the origins and circumstances that allow plagues to erupt and flourish today.

Our goal for this Wenner-Gren major symposium was to encourage a rich and productive dialogue about plague among scholars from the branches of anthropology and allied fields. We wanted to provoke a healthy creative tension by bringing scholars involved in the science of modeling plagues together with scholars interested in interpretive, critical, and metaphorical standpoints, and we wanted to develop a distinctive anthropological discourse about plague not conventional to