Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Michigan Live, Saturday, September 30, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://aa.mlive.com/news/index.ssf?/news/stories/20000929aneelbook.frm

U-M Refutes Claim Expert Harmed Tribe

BY David Wahlberg
News Staff Reporter

The University of Michigan is refuting a soon-to-be released book alleging that the late James Neel, a U-M genetics expert, caused a measles epidemic among South American Indians in the 1960s by giving them the measles vaccine.

The book by journalist Patrick Tierney, "Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon," will be released in Nov. 16 by W.W. Norton and excerpted in next week's New Yorker.

Neel, who died in February, was well known for his work on tribes in Brazil and Venezuela. In 1968, he studied the isolated Yanomami Indians in the

Amazon basin of southern Venezuela, a project supported by the former Atomic Energy Commission.

Tierney suggests that by inoculating the Yanomami, Neel actually gave tribe members the measles, and they infected others. "Hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people died in a population of 20,000, Tierney reported. A spokesman said Tierney was declining all interviews until the book's publication.

An e-mail circulated by two anthropologists at Cornell University and the University of Hawaii who have reviewed the book speculated that Neel may have had a eugenic motive. "It is possible," they wrote, that Neel "thought that genetically superior members" of these isolated groups "might prove to have differential levels of immunity and thus higher rates of survival to imported diseases."

The allegations are not true, say U-M officials and Neel's family.

The measles outbreak was introduced into the region by Brazilian missionaries, U-M Provost Nancy Cantor claimed in a statement. The outbreak occurred in November 1967, two months before Neel arrived, she said.

"Upon hearing of the outbreak, Dr. Neel acted quickly and responsibly to stop the spread of the disease," Cantor said.

Neel administered 1,000 doses of the vaccine, which used a live but weakened virus and has never been shown to be transmissible, said Dr. Allen Lichter, U-M medical school dean.

"It produces a mild fever and symptoms not unlike mild measles," Lichter said. "But someone who gets it can't transmit it to another person, even if you're in a population that has never seen measles before."

Frances Neel of Ann Arbor, James Neel's daughter, said it was cruel of Tierney to wait until her father died to release his book.

"Dad knew there was a measles epidemic when he went in, otherwise he wouldn't have taken the vaccine with him," she said.

She is especially upset by suggestions that her father was a eugenicist. In addition to his work in South America, Neel also went to Japan after World War II to study the genetic effects of the atomic bombs. "He never experimented on anyone. He wanted to learn from the mistakes."

Said Priscilla Neel of Ann Arbor, James Neel's wife: "The whole thing is a complete mess of lies."

Napolean Chagnon, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara who lives in Traverse City, als