Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Dr. Susan Lindee Review of Neel Field Notes

September 21, 2000


Today I had the opportunity to read James Neel's entire field notes for the 1968 work in Venezuela. I also read archival materials relating to his consultations with the Centers for Disease Control in late 1967 in preparation for the program in measles immunization he and his colleagues planned to undertake. And I read other correspondence in his papers, including correspondence with missionaries, Venezuelan authorities, Chagnon, and others.

The picture that emerges in these documents is at some variance with that presented in a widely circulated email describing the arguments in a new book by Patrick Tierney.

First, there are explicit matters of fact:

  1. Neel had Venezuelan governmental permission to carry out the vaccine program-the telegram providing that permission is in his papers.
  2. Neel had consulted a CDC expert on measles about how to administer the vaccine in November 1967, before the field trip which began in January 1968. The correspondence with CDC is in his papers as are records of the trip he made to Atlanta to meet with infectious disease specialists.
  3. Neel included gamma globulin with all the vaccines he administered and kept meticulous records of names of persons immunized, and doses given. Apparently some vaccines were administered without gamma globulin by Roche, who was involved in a different project (measuring iodine uptake) with Amazonian populations.
  4. Neel heard reports of a measles outbreak at a party on January 20 while he and his team were still in Caracas buying supplies. He did not give any vaccines until January 25, when he vaccinated 14 children under age 5 in a village that had experienced a measles outbreak five years earlier.
  5. When the measles problem was identified as an epidemic, on or around February 16, Neel provided penicillin and terramycin not only to those affected in the villages he visited, but also to those who would be able to bring it to persons affected elsewhere. There is no evidence that he attempted to discourage anyone from providing treatment, and indeed for about two weeks he spent much of his own time administering vaccines and antibiotics.
  6. Furthermore, Neel himself worked out a plan for controlling the epidemic, from 2 to 4 a.m. on 16 February, after he was awakened by a messenger bearing a frantic note from a colleague at the Ocama Mission, a note which said that there was a serious outbreak of measles, and asking him to send gamma globulin. His "all Orinoco" plan included controlling movement of people in and through the five primary ports of entry to the region, liberal use of penicillin, vaccination when practical, and gamma globulin when practical.

It is clear from his notes that the epidemic drastically disrupted his field research, making it impossible for him to collect the kinds of data he had intended to collect, and it is clear that he was at times frustrated, even angry, about this situation. A measles outbreak emphatically did not facilitate his research. I am of course basing the above account on correspondence and field notes in the papers of James V. Neel, and if we wish to adopt an X-files theory of history, we could propose that he planted these records, including the much-scribbled on and often almost illegible field notes, in order to mislead future historians about his actual behavior in the field.

There is one detail that does suggest a certain amount of forethought. All of Neel's fieldnotes, for his work in Japan, Amazonia, and elsewhere, stayed at his home institution of Ann Arbor after his death earlier this year. He did make one exception. He photocopied his entire field notebook for the 1968 Venezuelan trip, and placed these photocopied pages in a file marked "Yanomama-1968-Insurance." Having spent a good deal of time with James Neel, and even more time reading his correspondence, I know that he had a shrewd, dry sense of humor. I suspect that by the time he began parceling out his papers, he knew that Tierney was working on this book, and he copied the field notes for APS, where they would be widely available to scholars, as "insurance" against Tierney's claims.

Of course none of the above addresses what might be considered the real questions. Neel was a Cold Warrior deluxe, and an elitist, who was confident about his hierarchical rankings of races, sexes, civilizations, fields of knowledge production, and forms of social organization. His work drew heavily on the notion of the Yanomama as "primitive" and as a natural population which could be used to understand the "conditions of human evolution." Furthermore Neel knew--because he had asked the CDC to test antigen responses in his blood samples in 1967--that Yanomama in the very small villages he would be visiting had probably never been exposed to measles, or indeed to many other infectious diseases.

And so I think of Tierney's book, which I have not seen, and I want to both refute the specifics-I am convinced that Neel's intentions were benevolent in the classic colonialist sense-and express sympathy for the generalities. Amazonians have in fact been grievously damaged, in many ways, by those who came to them seeking to construct technical knowledge. But the book cannot be right if it does not respect the complexity of that damage, or the tangled human acts and ideas through which it came into being.

I am grateful to Robert Cox for helping me to navigate Neel's recently accessioned papers so quickly, and to Jonathan Marks, Ricardo Santos, Joel Howell, Rayna Rapp, Gerard Fitzgerald and others who have been participating in this ongoing exploration of a book none of us seems to have read. Please feel free to share this email if you feel it is useful.

Susan Lindee
Department of the History and Sociology of Science
University of Pennsylvania