Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: Michigan Daily University Wire, November 13, 2000
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Colleagues continue to defend U. Michigan researcher

Lisa Koivu

Ann Arbor, Mich.

James Neel remembers his father as being an extremely committed, dedicated man.

"His research was his life. His integrity was remarkable," Neel said of his father, University of Michigan researcher James V. Neel, who died in February.

In recent months, James V. Neel has come under attack by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney in the book "Darkness in El Dorado," in which Tierney charges Neel with intentionally infecting the Yanomami tribe in Venezuela with the measles for research purposes.

The University has been investigating claims stated in the book and a statement from Provost Nancy Cantor's office said the University is in complete support of Neel.

"We are satisfied that Dr. James Neel and Dr. Napoleon Chagnon, both among the most distinguished scientists in their respective fields, acted with integrity in conducting their research," Cantor said in the statement.

Cantor also said the two actions taken by the two scientists were "humane, compassionate and medically appropriate."

Neel, along with fellow researcher Napoleon Chagnon, traveled to Venezuela in January 1968 to personally administer 1,000 doses of the Edmonston B vaccine to the Yanomami to thwart the spread of the measles.

In the book, Tierney claims the vaccine was incorrectly administered and increased the number of Yanomami who died as a result of the disease.

The younger Neel said he is upset Tierney waited until after James V. Neel's death to release the book.

"I think that it's not an accident that they waited until my father died. If he were alive, I believe he would have absolutely no difficulty in correcting all the errors," Neel said.

Neel said knowing how dedicated his father was to his work has led him to believe Tierney's book is more fiction than fact.

"As a family, it's very hard to read Mr. Tierney's allegations, knowing that (James V. Neel) was a committed scientist that observed the highest moral and ethical standards," Neel said. "The evidence is overwhelming that this is much closer to a hoax."

Last Thursday, Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, released a statement saying many of the points made by Tierney are not researched well and that the author contradicts some of his points within the book itself.

Alberts said the Edmonston B vaccine was deemed safe and while it has been administered to 18 million infants, only three have died.

Alberts also said while some members of the Yanomami tribe reacted to the vaccine with a fever, none died as a result of the vaccine.

"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," Alberts said.

On Oct. 12, the National Book Foundation announced "Darkness in El Dorado" was a finalist for the nonfiction National Book Award.

In response to the announcement, University Vice President of Research Fawwaz Ulaby wrote a letter to the foundation asking them to conduct a fair review of the book before bestowing it with the award.

"A number of distinguished scholars made it clear that the excerpt had significant errors of fact and that it improperly characterized the activities" of Neel and Chagnon, Ulaby wrote.

"We were seriously concerned about the allegations in the article and evidently in the book. We conducted an internal investigation and believe the allegations are false," he continued.

In a letter written to Time Magazine dated Sept. 29, Chagnon said he was appalled by all claims in Tierney's book.

"Their assertion that James V. Neel, I, and others of our research team deliberately infected the Yanomami Indians with measles in 1968 to document how many would die is nothing short of heinous," Chagnon wrote.

Neel's son said he and his family are grateful for the support they have received since the allegations surfaced.

"As a family, we were heartened by the tremendous support on the part of the University, the Academy and numerous other societies and individuals all over the world," he said.