Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Date: Tuesday, September 19, 2000, 2:20 PM -0500
Thank you for forwarding this message to me. As you are aware, I was a student in the Department of Human Genetics at Michigan. Peter Smouse was my advisor but Dr. Neel was on my PhD commitee and was a mentor to me for the entire time I was a student at Michigan. Here are my thoughts.
To me, Dr. Neel is a continuing model for scientific integrity. I grieved when he recently passed away and it is painful for me to read something like this. I was a student in the Human Genetics Department from 1979-1984 and the data collection on the Yanomama project was completed by this time. I have no direct knowledge about what happened. Nonetheless, it is inconceivable to me that Dr. Neel would be accused of harming human subjects to advance his research or theories. I believe that much of Dr. Chagnon's work and ideas were/are independent of Dr. Neel. I know that by 1979 Drs. Neel and Chagnon were already estranged. I cannot comment on Dr. Chagnon because he was pretty much out of the picture at Michigan by the time that I got there, but it has never seemed to me that Dr. Chagnon was an hapless instrument carrying out Dr. Neel's research program. It is true that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and its successor the Department of Energy (DOE) funded research at Michigan and Dr. Neel studied mutation and the mutagenic properties of radiation. It is also true that Dr. Neel followed up the genetic consequences of the Japanese atomic bomb blasts. These are topics that are important to the interface of genetics, health, and society. It is important to note that he documented the consequences to those who had been exposed to radiation but he did not expose individuals to radiation.
Dr. Neel did observe a 'virgin soil' measles epidemic in the Yanomama. There were other non-Indians (including missionaries, traders, etc.) among the Yanomama at the time of the epidemic. Earlier accounts hold that the epidemic originated with measles in the child of a missionary. This is sound from an epidemiological perspective because at the time most adults in Europe and the United States were immune to measles by virtue of childhood exposure. I really cannot give the details of treatments and vaccines delivered by the Michigan team. However, it is worth noting that Dr. Neel was a physician and that he regarded his role as a physician every bit as seriously as he regarded his role as a scientist. He was also well aware of the difference between these roles. He was able to provide a qualified medical opinion! His view on the spread of measles was novel and challenged the prevailing wisdom of the 1960s and 1970s but he developed it to explain what he saw. Up until that time, scientists had attributed the decimation by disease of newly contacted people to their lack of supposed protective genes. However, Dr. Neel noted that in the 'virgin soil' context nobody in a village was immune by virtue of previous exposure and because of this everyone became sick at once. This placed a far greater burden on everyday life. Moreover, he noted that the cultural response to the unknown disease facilitated its spread because people fled from areas where the disease was occurring to those areas where the disease had yet to appear. All of this added up to the fact that it is unnecessary to postulate genetic inferiority in order to explain the severe response of uninitiated populations to novel pathogens. I recommend his paper on the incident and its ramifications (JV Neel et al. (1970) Notes on the effect of measles and measles vaccine in a virgin-soil population of South American Indians. Am J Epidemiol. 91:418-29).
Dr. Neel studied the Yanomama and other unacculturated populations because he thought that their population structure was relevant to understanding genetic variation in all human populations. He felt that the population structure of cosmopolitan populations was too recent to be reflected in our gene pools and that human polymorphism would not be adequately represented by extrapolation of the genetic consequences of cosmopolitan population structure. He also thought that changes in society and technology would change the adaptive value of many traits. This is reflected at many instances in his work but I think it is well represented in his paper on diabetes (Neel JV(1962) Diabetes mellitus: A “thrifty” genotype rendered detrimental by “progress”? Am J Hum Genet 14: 353-362). James V. Neel was interested in genes and social structure but he did not advocate a eugenic plan or purpose while I was a student at Michigan. I can’t imagine that there was a time that he did.
Dr. Neel published over 200 papers and review of his record shows that his work on humans was observational and not directly experimental. Many non-classified research programs received funding from the AEC and DOE. AEC/DOE funding does not establish guilt by association. In fact, the current Human Genome Project has a major DOE component and all of the data being collected is publicly available. Remember also that the AEC and DOE were not and are not part of the Department of Defense (DOD). In fact, there was a Human Genetics Department policy against receiving DOD funds. Dr. Neel openly acknowledged AEC and DOE funding in every paper that reported on research funded by these agencies. To the best of my knowledge his research wasn’t carried out in secret. Certainly a student would not know all of his professor’s activities but there was an unparalleled openness in the Department of Human Genetics at Michigan. I get nostalgic thinking about it. Try to imagine this, there were only two keys in the entire department: one was to the front door of the building and the other opened the library and every laboratory and office in the Department. Anyone (who dared) could have walked into Dr. Neel’s office and helped themselves. To my knowledge, nobody ever did. It would have been too much of a breach of honor. In addition to this, Dr. Neel always worked with his door wide open - a model for everyone to see. He was always there, early mornings, evenings, and weekends. His behavior and policies did not bear the stamp of clandestine activities.
Of course I have not yet read Patrick Tierney’s expose but it seems to me that it should be viewed with caution. I fear that it will be slanted and sensational and appeal to ignorance and paranoia. James V. Neel stands accused but he is denied by his death and the timing of Tierney’s release of the right to defend himself. It is our responsibility to remember that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
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Jeffrey C. Long, Ph.D.
(301) 443-5969 (Voice)
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