Internet Source: Sydney Morning Herald September 26, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.smh.com.au/news/0009/26/text/national6.html
By Paul Brown in London
Thousands of South American Indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds, so that American scientists could study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, a book to be published soon in the United States says.
The astonishing story of genetic research on humans, uncovered over 10 years, is likely to shake the world of anthropology, Professor Terry Turner, of Cornell University, who has read the proofs, says.
"In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology," Professor Turner says in a letter to the American Anthropology Association (AAA).
Darkness in El Dorado , by the investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, accuses James Neel, the geneticist who headed a long-term project to study the Yanomami people of Venezuela in the mid-'60s, of using a virulent measles vaccine to spark an epidemic that killed hundreds and probably thousands.
Once the epidemic was under way, the book says, the research team "refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit order from Neel. He insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help".
Professor Turner was trying to warn the AAA of the impending scandal so the profession could defend itself. Although Neel died last February, many of his associates, some of them authors of classic anthropology texts, are still alive. They have been invited to defend their work at the AAA's annual meeting in November.
One of the most controversial aspects of the research that allegedly culminated in the epidemic is that it was funded by the US Atomic Energy Commission, which was anxious to discover what might happen to communities when large numbers were wiped out by nuclear war.
While there is no "smoking gun" in the form of texts or recorded speeches by Neel explaining his conduct, Professor Turner believes the only explanation is that he was trying to test controversial eugenic theories like the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele.
He quotes another anthropologist who read the manuscript as saying: "Mr Tierney's analysis is a case study of the dangers in science of the uncontrolled ego, of lack of respect for life, and of greed and self-indulgence. It is a further extraordinary revelation of malicious and perverted work conducted under the aegis of the Atomic Energy Commission."
Professor Turner says Neel and his group used a virulent vaccine called Edmonson B on the Yanomami, which was known to produce symptoms virtually indistinguishable from cases of measles.
"Medical experts, when informed that Neel and his group used the vaccine in question on the Yanomami, typically refuse to believe it at first, then say that it is incredible that they could have done it, and are at a loss to explain why they would have chosen such an inappropriate and dangerous vaccine," he writes.
"There is no record that Neel sought any medical advice before applying the vaccine. He never informed the appropriate organs of the Venezuelan Government that his group was planning to carry out a vaccination campaign, as he was legally required to do.
"Neither he nor any other member of the expedition has ever explained why that vaccine was used, despite the evidence that it actually caused or, at a minimum, greatly exacerbated the fatal epidemic."
Professor Turner says Neel felt "natural" human society, as seen before the advent of large-scale agriculture, consists of small, genetically isolated groups in which dominant genes - specifically a gene he believed existed for "leadership" or "innate ability" - have a selective advantage.
In such an environment, male carriers of this gene would gain access to a disproportionate number of females, reproducing their genes more than less "innately able" males. The result would supposedly be a continual upgrading of the human genetic stock.
He says Neel believed that in modern societies "superior leadership genes would be swamped by mass genetic mediocrity".
"The political implication of this fascistic eugenics is clearly that society should be reorganised into small breeding isolates in which genetically superior males could emerge into dominance, eliminating or subordinating the male losers in the competition for leadership and women and amassing harems of brood females," Professor Turner adds.
In the memo he says: "One of Tierney's more startling revelations is that the whole Yanomami project was an outgrowth and continuation of the Atomic Energy Commission's secret program of experiments on human subjects. Neel, the originator of the project, was part of the medical and genetic research team attached to the Atomic Energy Commission since the days of the Manhattan Project."
James Neel was well known for his research into the effects of radiation on human subjects and personally headed the team that investigated the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs on survivors and their children.
Professor Turner says the same group also secretly carried out experiments on humans in the US. These included injecting people with plutonium without their knowledge or permission.
"This nightmarish story - a real anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining of even a Joseph Conrad (though not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele) - will be seen, rightly in our view, by the public, as well as most anthropologists, as putting the whole discipline on trial," he says.
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