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October 4, 2000
The Guardian Weekly
75 Farringdon Road
Paul Brown’s article “ US scientist brought death to the Amazon” (Guardian Weekly, September 28 2000) is if true, damning the reputation of one of the United States leading human Geneticists, Jim Neel. Unfortunately Neel died in February 2000 so is not able to defend himself. The article is based on a book written by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, but not yet published. It apparently concludes that Neel during his work on the Yanomama people of the Amazonian rain forest deliberately infected them with measles by using a virulent measles vaccine to spark an epidemic in order to test some theory supposedly held by Neel of “innate leadership”. The fact, that from Neel’s writings, there is not one shred of evidence to support these allegations seems not to worry those propagating them in both Europe and the US.
We want to suggest that these claims are not supported, either by Neel’s actions throughout his life, or by the archival records of his work, including papers and documents held at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. They are furthermore illogical. Neel had to bring in refrigerated vaccines, arrange for donations from American pharmaceutical companies, get the vaccines through Venezuelan customs, and then spend half his days administering the vaccines with gamma globulin. There are far easier ways to infect a population with measles. One of us (Hamerton) knew Neel as a scientific colleague, the other (Lindee) as the subject of historical research. We want to reiterate that Neel’s fieldnotes from his 1968 trip make his intentions clear.
First, there are explicit matters of fact:
1. Neel was collaborating with a major Venezuelan scientific agency, and had Venezuelan governmental permission to carry out the vaccine program.
2. Neel met with CDC specialists on measles on November 20, 1967, and consulted a CDC expert on measles about how to administer the vaccine 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.
3. Neel included gamma globulin with 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, a Venezuelan physician who was involved in a different project (measuring iodine uptake) with Amazonian populations.
4. Neel had received frantic letters from missionaries reporting a “raging measles epidemic” in December 1967 and heard reports of a measles outbreak very near the villages he would be visiting 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.
5. 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.
Neel’s field notes confirm his account in his book “ Physician to the Gene Pool” in which he describes in detail his work with the Yanomama population. Neel was a eugenicist only in the sense that he was concerned about the health of the gene pool. He never advocated draconian interventions of any kind. He had a theory about the genetic basis of leadership, but such theories were not (and are not) unusual, and they are not equivalent to the eugenic theories guiding Josef Mengele. Neel was in fact a caring and compassionate individual who was concerned for the populations he was studying and who recognized the complexities of his interactions with the people he encountered in the field. We quote:
“We took great pains to introduce no disease. We treated the sick as we traveled. At the end of each period in the field, we submitted detailed reports and recommendations to the appropriate authorities of Brazil and Venezuela and wrote general accounts of our findings. In 1968 I arranged a symposium–subsequently published-for the Pan American Health Organization, entitled “Biomedical challenges presented by the American Indian” at which a variety of health issues were discussed. I have no illusions about how effective any of this was in the long-range sense. On the other hand, further and less benign contacts than ours are absolutely inevitable, as each year efforts to exploit natural resources drive more and more people into the interior of South America. Great and final disruptions of the remaining tribal populations are imminent. Did we ameliorate the situation, even if by ever so little, and simultaneously collect data of some scientific value?” (Physician to the Gene Pool 1994 p171)
This is not the writing of a rampant eugenicist out to prove some far fetched eugenic theory, but of a concerned physician and scientist. One has to wonder as one reads the furor surrounding Tierney’s book, the e-mailed quotations, the leaks from the galley proofs whether this whole sad and sorry episode is not more about selling books, than about concern for the welfare of an Amazonian population. The timing, eight months after Neel’s death is perhaps less surprising since someone who has passed on cannot defend himself but must rely on history to do it for him. Let us hope that the true history of these events will soon be written.
John L. Hamerton, D.Sc., FRSC
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Human Genetics, University of Manitoba,
M. Susan Lindee, Ph.D
Department of the History and Sociology of Science
University of Pennsylvania
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