Comment on W.P. 2.1, "The Measles Epidemic of 1968"
Dr. Kenneth Good
New Jersey City University
I am amazed of how much effort to discredit Tierney has been based on what two other people, Turner and Sponsel, said about his book. It impresses me as signs of weak arguments when critics have to revert to this pre-publication letter to excoriate Tierney. Admittedly, voracious media sources have had a lot to do with this, thereby the matter of the leaked letter, which, it seems, opponents of Tierney somehow almost universally know was not disseminated by an unknown party. Even at this late date in comments to this preliminary report there are some who continue their incessant quotes of the Turner/Sponsel letter. And this even though Turner has retracted his premature statement that Neel may have started the epidemic. I believe the task here is to examine charges made in the published version of Tierney’s book, not what Turner and Sponsel or anyone else may have said in a letter not even meant to become public.
I will not join in this debate of how or where the epidemic started. However I think it important to cite a footnote which many may not have seen in the “Afterword” of the paperback edition of Darkness in El Dorado. In note 26, page 398, Tierney informs us that the extreme negative responses to the vaccine that Neel’s group was administering apparently led to arguments about whether they should be continued. In an interview with Tierney, Bernard Centerwall who is a medical doctor told how his father Willard Centerwall, the principal physician on the expedition had argued bitterly with Neel over whether to continue the vaccinations because of the adverse effects they were having on the Yanomami and that Neel didn’t want to vaccinate “because the severe side effects and because he was more interested in observing the effects of a natural measles outbreak.” Tierney points out that these comments are based on conversations the younger Centerwall had with his father after the expedition. Tierney also points out that the account “is consistent with some other evidence on tapes, which show that Neel mocked the elder Centerwall when Centerwall was treating a sick Yanomami man at Patanowa-teri.” He continues that the account likewise “is consistent with the attitude expressed in one section of Neel’s notes, in which he wrote that he would not vaccinate at Patanow-teri unless the expedition accomplished its research objective first. Interesting, the last statement is consistent with Chagnon’s criticism and mocking of his ex-student, Jesus Cardozo, when he wanted to treat sick Yanomami, angrily declaring that he would never be a scientist.
I cannot attest to these accounts except to say that they are also consistent with a conversation I had with Chagnon in 1975, while driving to Bethesda, MD. Apparently Chagnon had had somewhat of a falling out with Neel prior to his leaving his department at Michigan and coming to Penn State. In the course of our conversation he remarked, “If Neel gives me any crap I have something on him. There was a measles epidemic and he didn’t want to stop it.” I call on Chagnon to come forward and fully explain what went on regarding the epidemic. I would prefer that he explain the rest of this conversation about this matter. I think enough people have given their time and energy on this measles question to finally warrant a full explanation.