Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: New York Times, November 14, 2000
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/14/science/14ACAD.html

Science Panel Disputes Report on Bad Vaccine


The National Academy of Sciences is disputing accusations that reckless experiments by one of its members killed hundreds of South American Indians.

The assertions are contained in the book "Darkness in El Dorado," published this month by W. W. Norton & Company. The author, Patrick Tierney, contends that scientists from the United States inoculated thousands of Yanomami Indians in 1968 with a dangerous measles vaccine that set off a deadly epidemic.

In a statement last Thursday, the academy, one of the nation's most prestigious scientific bodies, said the book contained multiple factual errors and misstatements.

"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," the academy said.

Last month, an Associated Press article raised similar issues and cited several epidemiologists who said the vaccine given to the Yanomami by Dr. James V. Neel, a University of Michigan geneticist, and his colleagues was proved safe and could not have transmitted measles.

Dr. Neel, who died in February, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1963. "Darkness in El Dorado" disparages him as a controversial figure "whose eugenic views made him a pariah outside his own specialty."

In reality, Dr. Neel was a highly respected scientist and well loved by his colleagues, said Ken Fulton, executive director of membership for the academy.

"It seemed only right to defend him when he couldn't defend himself," Mr. Fulton said.

Reached in Venezuela, Mr. Tierney disagreed vehemently with the academy's statement.

"I feel it's a gross misrepresentation of what I say in my book," Mr. Tierney said. "There is an element of mystery about the 1968 expedition and the measles epidemic that will never be resolved."

The academy also disputed Mr. Tierney's characterization of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, an organization that studied the long- term health of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. The commission was not a part of the Atomic Energy Commission, as Mr. Tierney's book says, but an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, which was sometimes at odds with the federal nuclear agency.