Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

Internet Source: American Anthropological Association, Anthropology News 44(3), March 2003
Source URL (Archive.org): http://www.umich.edu/~urel/darkness.html

Yanomami Vaccine Resolution

I disagree with the resolution submitted by Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross (see Motion #1, Feb AN, p 17) and their underlying assumption that all the facts are in and that Patrick Tierney’s account of the Yanomami measles epidemic has been fully discredited.

We do not know all the facts, especially when it comes to Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) funded research. Efforts to investigate the James V Neel allegations in Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado involved review of materials in the Philadelphia, Houston and the U of Michigan Neel archives. When Neel retired, wrote his memoir, was interviewed by biographer Susan Lindee, and selected materials to house in his personal archives, Neel was still bound by his national security oath and many of the documents pertaining to his AEC work were still classified. Some Neel documents were posthumously declassified following the Clinton Administration’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE) investigation, but only those directly relating to radiation experiments were released. Other materials may still be classified. ACHRE senior staff member Jonathon Moreno observed in Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans (2001) that the ACHRE addressed the tip of the iceberg. If federally funded radiation research within the US population is the tip, the iceberg is still classified and includes biological and chemical weapons research in the US and abroad, and foreign experimentation using US-provided radioisotopes and technical support. Statements issued by the National Academy of Sciences, The American Society for Human Genetics, and the International Genetic Epidemiological Society reflect a portion of publicly accessible materials; they overlook declassified materials released posthumously, and do not acknowledge that portions of Neel’s professional life remain inaccessible.

Nor do we know all the facts associated with the problems of using Edmonston-B measles vaccine in a malnourished, immune-compromised population. HIV research and efforts to respond to bioterrorism threats have greatly enhanced our understanding of vaccine side effects, especially in immune-compromised populations. Recent US sponsored research and federal vaccination advisories note that: 1) Vaccines using live attenuated smallpox virus have produced documented incidents of viral shedding resulting in the transmission of the virus to non-vaccinated populations; 2) Cases of encephalitis and pneumonia following measles vaccination in immune- compromised populations have been well documented; 3) The epidemiology of measles vaccination includes higher rates of outbreak in high risk groups; 4) Recently exposed immune-compromised groups experienced a marked increase in adverse reactions when subsequently vaccinated with measles vaccine; and 5) measles vaccine virus infection has been linked to subsequent death in six severely immune-suppressed persons.

I am concerned that the proposed remedy—a statement recognizing “the harmfulness of false accusations regarding vaccine safety”—suggests a blanket endorsement of vaccination programs, discourages any critical look at adverse reactions or experiences, and implies a denial of the Yanomami experience.

Barbara Rose Johnston
Center for Political Ecology


The resolution submitted by Gregor and Gross, calling for the AAA to repudiate accusations against the late James Neel and Napoleon Chagnon stemming from Darkness in El Dorado, contains misstatements and omissions which distort or obscure the real problems arising from their actions. These distortions lead the authors to make confusing and inappropriate recommendations.

The authors move directly from the specific allegation that the Edmonston-B vaccine had fatal effects—there is general but not universal agreement in the denial of this point—to the vague, all-inclusive claim that “the charges against Neel and Chagnon . . . have been investigated and discredited” by several entities. This is far from the truth. Furthermore, the El Dorado Task Force ended up verifying a number of allegations made in Darkness in El Dorado.

More importantly, Gregor’s and Gross’ attempt to clothe their call for the total exoneration of Neel and Chagnon as altruistic concern over the “danger” of reports that vaccines have caused medical harm (which they treat only as false claims) has serious ethical and political implications. Their call to “recognize the harmfulness of false accusations regarding vaccine safety” appears unobjectionable in itself. Who could disagree that false accusations may be harmful? The authors’ warnings of the “dangers” posed by such reports, however, apply equally to truthful reports. They assert that criticism, in the form of “the charges that initiated [the Task Force’s investigation], is in itself “dangerous” because it undermines “public trust” in vaccinations and thus threatens “the health and safety . . . of all peoples.” This conclusion, and the implied gag rule on the reporting of real (as opposed to “false”) vaccine disasters, goes too far.

Not all allegations of harmful reactions to vaccines are false, as the current national debate over the safety of smallpox and pertussis vaccinations reminds us. A number of US and European pharmaceutical companies test new drugs, including experimental vaccines, in Third- or Fourth-World settings to avoid responsibility for the harmful effects their products occasionally cause. Anthropologists may be the only witnesses able to bring such abuses to public notice. They are usually not in a position to verify such reports scientifically, but have an ethical obligation to report the occurrences, to provoke independent investigations if called for. Gregor and Gross’ resolution would seem to bar such reporting, and perhaps the investigations themselves, as threats to “public trust” in vaccines. Adoption of this resolution would pit the AAA against the ethical responsibility of its members to bear true witness to the harmful effects of vaccines and other pharmaceuticals if and when they do occur.

Dominic Boyer
Jane Fajans
Davydd Greenwood
David Holmberg
Billie-Jean Isbell
Katherine March
Hirokazu Miyazaki
Viranjini Munasinghe
Jakob Rigi
Annelise Riles
Nerissa Russell
P Steven Sangren
Johanna Schoss
Terence Turner
Andrew Wilford
Cornell U


I wish to correct information included in the resolution submitted by Thomas Gregor and Daniel Gross. In this document they include the U of Michigan among the institutions that allegedly “investigated” and “discredited” the charges against Neel and Chagnon. This is not accurate. Through the Office of the Provost, The U of Michigan produced several statements concerning Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado. Its last update, dated May 29, 2001, far from discrediting the allegations presented in the book, encourages investigating them through open scholarly discussion. The statement only counters the false charge of criminal conduct that Professors Neel and Chagnon had intentionally caused or intensified a measles epidemic among the Yanomami. This charge, based on an email summarizing the book’s galley, was quickly refuted by the broader academic community and dropped from the book. I quote relevant sections of the Michigan statement:

This latest update benefits from the important lecture Series, ‘Science/Ethics/ Power’ sponsored by this Office and organized by the Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History. These discussions as well as our current understanding of the allegations raised by Tierney’s book have been informed by a careful evaluation of the large number of reports and reviews of the book produced in the US, Venezuela and Brazil by scholars as well as by academic organizations and government commissions.

On the basis of this information, we can now confirm our original finding that there is no basis to the allegation that Dr James Neel’s research may have caused or intentionally intensified a measles epidemic among the Yanomami. Our original response to the allegation drew on the summary of the book provided by an email. . . . We also consider that there is now significant scholarly agreement that while Patrick Tierney’s book has serious limitations, its examination of the work of researchers in the Amazon raises fundamental, general questions about the ethics, methods and effects of scientific research that require scholarly attention. These are complex questions that do not yield simple or definitive answers.

The Michigan statement, rather than claiming that the facts about Tierney’s book have been definitively established, promotes their critical evaluation. It is ironic that a resolution urging the AAA to recognize the harmfulness of false accusations regarding vaccine safety is supported by false claims that discourage the critical discussion of vital issues.

Fernando Coronil
U of Michigan


The resolution proposed by Gregor and Gross misrepresents the conclusions made by the medical team of the U of Rio de Janeiro-UFRJ. The resolution gives the wrong impression that the UFRJ report looked into all the allegations against Neel and Chagnon and found them to be untrue. In fact, the Brazilian team examined mainly the accusation made by Patrick Tierney that the vaccination started the 1968 measles epidemic. Literally what the UFRJ report said was that the decision to use the Edmonston B vaccine with the Yanomami “was not technically wrong.” Moreover, the report suggested that the vaccine chosen by Neel was not the most appropriate. There were at that time other vaccines, like the Schwartz, which caused milder reactions than the Edmonston B. The UFRJ team called the attention to the fact that by 1968, studies had attested that isolated populations tended to have stronger reactions to the Edmonston B, and therefore the use of vaccines with attenuated virus like the Schwartz was more recommended in those cases.

The resolution contains another problem that is even more serious. Gross and Gregor imply that indigenous peoples, or perhaps “Third-World people”—as Gregor used many times in his speech in the last AAA Annual Meeting—will refuse to accept vaccination due to the accusations made against Neel and Chagnon. So far, all the responses from Yanomami spokespersons from Brazil and Venezuela point to the contrary. The Yanomami seem to grasp very easily the difference between medical research and medical health care. They have said repeated times that they welcome medical treatment for their diseases but that they oppose any research without their prior consent.

Finally, the resolution is paternalistic toward Indians and people in poor countries in general. The idea is that we are all incapable of sorting through (true and false) allegations made against vaccination campaigns and making the right decision. The conclusion is that the best strategy when dealing with Indians and poor people is to raise no questions. It happens, however, that there have been indisputable cases in different countries of medical experiments, including using vaccines, that harmed the subjects. The Yanomami and the “Third World” have nothing to lose by being informed of and able to question matters that have to do with their/our bodies and minds. It is against the interest of indigenous peoples and all people to attempt to silence such inquiries.

Lêda Leitão Martins
Cornell U
Maria Stella de Castro Lobo
UFRJ-Federal U of Rio de Janeiro
Marcos Antônio Pellegrini
UFSC-Federal U of Santa Catarina


I do not think the AAA should pass the Yanomami vaccine resolution.

First, the resolution attempts to put the AAA on record with a professional opinion about complex factual issues of immunology that the vast majority of its members are in no position to pass judgment about.

Secondly, the resolution insinuates the same ethical charges made in the censure resolution submitted by William Irons, which was so strongly rejected by the members present at the information gathering session in New Orleans. Several anthropologists have played an active role in focusing academic and media attention on ethical allegations related to research among the Yanomami, some few of which may eventually prove to be false or overstated. In the aftermath of the publication of Darkness in El Dorado, however, these same anthropologists have actively encouraged detailed investigations by competent bodies.

John Norvell
Cornell U