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Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Interview with Dr. Brandon S. Centerwall (Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Epidemiology, University of Washington)

by Dr. John Frechione (Associate Director, Center for Latin American Studies, Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh)

 

Working papers 2.1 and 4.1 attempt to assess the conduct of Dr. James V. Neel and other members of his expedition in the face of the Yanomami measles epidemic in 1968.   In this regard, the El Dorado Task Force should consider the following transcript of a tape-recorded interview I held on October 27, 2001, with Dr. Brandon Centerwall, the son of Dr. Willard Centerwall, who was the chief medical doctor on Neel’s expedition in 1968:

 

JF:     Specifically, we’re looking for what your father and Dr. James Neel, the incident, I guess one might call it, or discussion, at the Yanomami village of Patanowa-teri.

 

BC:  Yes. They arrived there and, as my father told me about it after he came back, he had gone through the supplies of vaccines and medications on arriving there and came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t enough and they would need to be obtaining more. And so he took Neel to one side of the rest of the team and presented him with the information and said that there was enough time; that if they immediately radioed out and had material flown down and brought in, then they would have time to get the additional supplies that were needed.

 

       Neel explained to him at that point that actually his intention was not to vaccinate the village at all, because this would be a unique opportunity, not to be repeated, of seeing what an actual measles outbreak in a virgin soil population with no vaccinations at all, and that the principal was that they were there as merely observers. That they were to observe the natural process and that they were not interfere with the culture and that a measles epidemic was a natural process.

 

        Well, my father is a physician—they were both physicians—and was outraged by this and said that if Neel did not radio in the supplies and so on that my father would go over his head and radio them in on his personal authority as a physician. I suppose ordinarily he would have been fired on the spot. But they were in the middle of the territory and he was the key physician and after some, and so after some reflection, Neel did radio for the supplies himself and [not intelligible]…was quite upset with the loss of the opportunity. But later on, it turned out to be kind of a PR coup…[not intelligible]

 

JF:    And how old were you when your father told you this?

 

BC:   I would have been fourteen or so.

 

[Followed by verification from Dr. Brandon Centerwall that the conversation was being taped and that he was the son of Dr. Willard Centerwall.]