Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: National Academy of Sciences, November 9, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www4.nationalacademies.org/nas/nashome.nsf/b57ef1bf2404952b852566dd00671bfd/57065f16ff258371852569920052d283?OpenDocument

Setting the Record Straight Regarding Darkness in El Dorado

A Statement from Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences

November 9, 2000

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) believes that it is critical to correct several statements that are misleading or demonstrably false in the new book from W.W. Norton & Co., Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, by Patrick Tierney.

Although Darkness in El Dorado gives the appearance of being well-researched, in many instances the author's conclusions are either contradicted or not supported by the references he cites. Many of the book's misstatements and misattributions have been exhaustively addressed by other institutions, scholarly societies, and individuals, some of whom have made their commentaries available on the Web.1 The Academy feels compelled to refute those errors of fact and interpretation that specifically concern our own work.

Among Mr. Tierney's major errors of fact are two regarding Academy activities, addressed in detail later in this statement:

In addition, charges are made in the book regarding the use of the Edmonston B measles vaccine by geneticist James V. Neel, a recently deceased member of the Academy. These charges have been shown to be groundless by other scientists and scientific organizations, but the Academy also feels a responsibility to defend the reputation of a distinguished scientist who is unable to refute these allegations himself.

In the paragraphs that follow, we detail specific misleading and inaccurate statements in the book and provide the facts, as well as the context, to help set the record straight.

Errors Regarding the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission

The first mention of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, appearing on page 37, refers to the ABCC policy of not providing medical treatment to its study population. Turning to James Neel's 1994 autobiography, Physician to the Gene Pool,2 Mr. Tierney quotes: "One of the most frequent Japanese complaints has been that we (the ABCC) only examined them (like guinea pigs), but did not offer treatment in the event of findings of medical significance. The fact is that the terms under which the ABCC operated did not permit treatment...." The ellipsis appears in Mr. Tierney's text. By failing to quote Neel's second sentence in its entirety, Mr. Tierney leaves the reader with a distorted view of the ABCC's work in Japan. The full quote reads:

One of the most frequent Japanese complaints has been that we (the ABCC) only examined them (like guinea pigs), but did not offer treatment in the event of findings of medical significance. The fact is that the terms under which the ABCC operated did not permit treatment, but any finding, whether on a child or on an adult, was not only explained carefully to the patient (or parents), with the recommendation to see his/her physician, but also the patient's personal physician received a detailed letter describing the findings. 3

The non-treatment policy, it is important to note, was adopted because the ABCC was prohibited from undertaking therapy by the regulations governing the occupation of Japan. This was stated explicitly by Thomas M. Rivers, chair of the NAS committee overseeing the work of the ABCC, at a meeting of that committee on October 17, 1949.4

The author consistently makes errors in describing the ABCC and its relationship to the Atomic Energy Commission. For instance, on page 302, Mr. Tierney writes that the "...AEC's genetic division became known as the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC)." The ABCC was instead an independent, NAS-run binational study with Japan of the survivors of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The surgeon general of the Army, Major General Norman T. Kirk, requested that the National Academy of Sciences appoint a Committee on Atomic Casualties to assess the feasibility of conducting a long-range study on the effects of the atomic bombs on survivors. The Academy did so in June 1946. This committee recommended that a presidential directive be issued to instruct the NAS to "undertake a long range, continuing study of the biological and medical effects of the atomic bomb on man." James Forrestal, secretary of the Navy, forwarded this recommendation to President Harry Truman, and the president approved it on November 26, 1946. Because General MacArthur's occupation policy required that every U.S. group working with the Japanese people obtain a partner in the Japanese government and infrastructure, the ABCC entered into a binational partnership with the Japanese National Institute of Health. The National Academy of Sciences was selected as the U.S. partner because of its independence, which would permit unbiased investigation, and its stature within the scientific community that would facilitate recruitment of the highest caliber team. That partnership has survived occupation and the Cold War; it is now, as far as we know, the longest-running binational research program in modern history.

Thus the ABCC was neither part of nor controlled by the AEC. Rather, the project originated because of its scientific importance as judged by scientists, with logistical and personnel support from the military. The Atomic Energy Commission was approached as a sponsoring agency in 1947, because neither the Army's nor the Navy's medical departments had funds available for the study.5 Indeed, because of the nature of the ABCC's work, and to the AEC's statutory responsibilities in regard to information related to its operations, a relationship with the AEC was virtually unavoidable. But this relationship was not one of AEC control and NAS submission.

Mr. Tierney repeats this error later on page 302. He writes that the National Academy of Sciences was only "theoretically a full partner in Neel's atomic bomb studies." In order substantiate this point, he asserts that:

In 1950, the NAS sent to Japan two representatives who informed Neel of the academy's decision to cancel the genetics research program. Neel, who had by then moved on to found the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan, nevertheless remained on the ABCC. He expressed 'total horror and indignation' to the NAS representatives in Japan. A few days later, MacArthur 'strongly urged' the NAS to continue the genetics research, on the grounds that 'discontinuation of the program would create a scientific vacuum into which investigators of uncertain credibility would be drawn.

But the source footnoted for this passage - again, Neel's autobiography - reveals quite a different story:
The AEC staff who served as 'project officers' for this undertaking at times were quite critical of its conduct. Relations between the Academy and the AEC reached a nadir in 1951, when the AEC expressed its displeasure in the conduct of the program by reducing its budget, and the Academy responded that it would rather shut the program down that [sic] limp along on such inadequate funding.

I remember this confrontation so well because in 1950, anticipating the possibility of this action, the AEC had sent Ernest Goodpasture, a distinguished pathologist, Merle Eisenbud, director of the New York City-based Health and Safety laboratory of the AEC, and Willard Machle, a consulting industrial physician, to Japan to advise on the most appropriate phase out should this become necessary. 6

Neel goes on to write that he strenuously objected to the Atomic Energy Commission's attempt to cancel the program, and relates that MacArthur issued a protest as well. Thus contrary to Mr. Tierney's assertion, it was the AEC and not the NAS that sent the representatives interested in dismantling the program, and it was the AEC's will that was overridden.

Still more troubling are charges denigrating the integrity of Neel's work with the ABCC. On page 302-303, Mr. Tierney writes:

The military, the AEC, and the nuclear power industry have never since had reason to doubt Neel's credibility. His data on radiation toxicity has been consistently optimistic - with thresholds set four times higher than United Nations safety guidelines. The University of Michigan's medical department received $6.8 million in funding from the Department of Energy and its predecessor, the AEC, for genetic research under Neel between 1965 and 1980, the only period for which I have information...Scientists who reached less sanguine conclusions about radiation risk were discredited and sometimes driven out of government labs and academic institutions.

The implication is that James Neel, in his work at the ABCC, produced reports underplaying the deleterious effects of radiation. In an attempt to substantiate this charge, Mr. Tierney cites as evidence an entire section of Neel's autobiography. But this section deals with Neel's experience with the NAS Committees on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation (BEAR), an activity distinctly separate from the ABCC. Regarding the work of BEAR, Neel's autobiography states: "In general, the recommendations of our Committee have held up surprisingly well in the hands of those bodies that are somewhat closer to the regulatory system, such as the U.S. Federal Radiation Council, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, and the International Commission on Radiation Protection."7

In a particularly egregious error, Mr. Tierney implies that the ABCC was involved with human radiation experimentation. On page 310 in Mr. Tierney's text, a specious "flow chart" positions the ABCC after three names associated (according to Tierney) with human radiation experiments and before other human experiments, thus implicating the ABCC as the link between the two. But Mr. Tierney's own text contains no documentation of - nor is there connection between - the ABCC and human radiation experiments or, indeed, any human experiments at all.

Error Regarding the National Academy of Sciences

On page 309, Mr. Tierney asserts that low doses of radiation have "turned out to be a very serious problem - especially in light of the National Academy of Sciences' latest, most comprehensive study, showing that many people did, in fact, die of radiation exposure at the bomb plants." The Academy has not published such a study and is, in fact, unaware of any scientific study that relates this finding. One likely explanation is that Mr. Tierney has confused the National Economic Council (whose report was used by the Department of Energy in its proposed revised policies on compensation of nuclear workers exposed to radiation) with the National Research Council (the operating agency of the National Academies), and then made the erroneous connection to the National Academy of Sciences.

Errors in Characterization of the Edmonston B Vaccine

Mr. Tierney makes two scientific errors in his discussion of Neel's use of Edmonston B measles vaccine during his 1968 field trip to Venezuela. First, he alleges that Neel selected this vaccine mindful of its harmful results; he did so, according to Mr. Tierney, in order to record the response of the Yanomami to this "virulent" virus vaccine in hopes of confirming eugenic theories that Neel purportedly espoused. Second, Mr. Tierney further alleges that this vaccine caused or exacerbated a measles epidemic that ravaged "15-20 per cent" of the Yanomami population. Thus, according to Mr. Tierney, the vaccine was not only harmful, but that harm could be communicated from one individual to another. Both charges are incorrect.

First, Edmonston B virus vaccine was not virulent. It was a licensed attenuated vaccine whose safety had been established. More than 18 million infants and children have been vaccinated with Edmonston B; only three died. One individual was in late stages of leukemia and was undergoing radiation therapy; two had immune deficiency syndrome. What is more, the vaccine had been used in isolated populations and without fatality on children with underlying disorders including malaria, malnutrition, and intestinal parasitism - disorders such as those that afflicted the Yanomami. While Edmonston B was less attenuated (more reactive) than vaccines developed later and used today, it was hardly contraindicated. The vaccine was licensed by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the World Health Organization.

Second, in all instances of intensive study, the vaccine was never found to produce a communicable effect. It could not induce measles, nor could it produce a similar, communicable disease. Mr. Tierney alleges that Edmonston B did just that; moreover, on page 97, he asserts that Neel and Chagnon "feared their vaccine reactions might turn into an uncontrolled epidemic..." Neither scientist ever feared that Edmonston B would produce measles. Furthermore, vaccine experts have long agreed that measles could not be transmitted from one individual to another by vaccination.

Not only is Mr. Tierney's reading of the scientific evidence incorrect, but the historical record itself contradicts his recounting of the 1968 measles epidemic. News of a measles epidemic, first reported by Protestant missionaries deep in Yanomami territory, preceded James Neel's entry into the field.8 Dr. Neel obtained the Edmonston B vaccine before he revisited the Yanomami in 1968; he consulted the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta before his trip, as well as Dr. Francis Black of Yale University, the leading authority on virgin-soil measles at the time. In addition, he obtained permission to carry and use the vaccine from the Venezuelan government through the Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Cientificas, the leading scientific institute in that country.9

Review of the available sources points to a conclusion that is very different than that advertised by Mr. Tierney: Dr. James Neel used the Edmonston B vaccine after consultation with scientific and government authorities, in an attempt to benefit the recipients and contain an epidemic. Upon vaccination, some Yanomami individuals reacted with fever. None died from the vaccine, and no vaccinated individual spread a pathogen to another individual.10

In purportedly explaining Dr. Neel's motivation, Mr. Tierney cites Neel's supposed eugenic beliefs as well as the professional prestige that would be accorded a study of measles in a virgin-soil population. But any contention that James Neel held eugenic principles is flatly and demonstrably wrong; on the contrary, his most substantial professional contribution was wresting the control of human genetics away from eugenic pseudo-scientists. A commentary on this issue that makes the same point, supporting it with detailed references, has just been published.11

Given all of the foregoing, Mr. Tierney's misuse of source material and the factual errors and innuendoes in his book do a grave disservice to a great scientist and to science itself.

1 See, for example, Web sites at the University of Michigan, the Human Biology Evolution Society, the International Genetics and Epidemiology Society, the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University.

2 James V. Neel, Physician to the Gene Pool (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994).

3 Ibid., p. 85.

4 NAS-NRC Archives, ABCC Records Group, Box 79: Committee on Atomic Casualties: Meetings: Tenth: 17 Oct 1949.

5 NAS-NRC Archives, ABCC Records Group, Box 73: Committee on Atomic Casualties: Funding Proposals: 1947.

6 Neel, op. cit., p. 87.

7 Ibid., p. 324.

8 Ibid.

9 The facts bearing on Neel's work in Venezuela with the Yanomami are contained in Neel's field notes, copies of which are publicly available to scholars through the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, U.S.A.

10 Neel, J.V., Centerwall, W.R., Chagnon, N.A., and Casey, H.L.. Notes on the effect of measles and measles vaccine in a virgin-soil population of South American Indians. Am. J. Epidemiol. 91: 418-429. 1970.

11 Diane Paul and John Beatty, "James Neel, Darkness in El Dorado, and Eugenics: The Missing Context," Society for Latin American Anthropology e-Newsletter, issue 17 and 18, November 1, 2000.