Winter 2019

Public Display of Infection

Jonathan Epstein, MG02, V02, is behind a new Smithsonian exhibit.

By Genevieve Rajewksi

To mark the hundredth anniversary of the 1918 “Spanish flu”—which killed at least 50 million people worldwide—the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History recently opened an exhibit that explores how human pandemics emerge from animals and the environment. Serving as the chief scientific adviser of Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World was Jonathan Epstein, MG02 (MPH), V02, an international expert in Ebola, Nipah virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and other diseases.

“We are wildly lucky to have Jon on the Outbreak team,” said lead curator Sabrina Sholts. “From sharing his stories and photos from the field, to creating interactive games, to reviewing literally every word of content, he bore an enormous responsibility of representing the work of a global and cross-disciplinary community of colleagues.” Here, Epstein comments on a few pieces in the exhibition, which runs through 2021 in Washington, D.C.


When fresh biological material is no longer available, scientists can use the latest technologies to study remains preserved in archives for clues about how diseases operate. This skull, from a man who died in 1929 while infected with influenza and tuberculosis, is even today yielding new information thanks to DNA found in the hardened plaque on his teeth. “This shows how museum archives can play a pivotal role in exploring historic epidemics,” Epstein said.


We wanted to share the human stories of outbreaks and the ways in which society has dealt with them,” Epstein said. These items memorialize the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when “gay men were watching their friends die from an infectious disease, and the medical community didn’t have a good answer for them.” Public-awareness campaigns, and protests about the lack of progress, finally led to a turning point for AIDS research and treatment in the 1990s.


“At markets in China, people buy and butcher a whole assortment of domestic and wild animals,” Epstein said. But unless people can see cages of different animals stacked atop each other, “it can be hard to comprehend how such innocent-seeming human activities can help a disease like SARS jump from one species to another.”

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