Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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The University of Michigan
News and Information Services
News Release
412 Maynard
Ann Arbor, Michigan

September 27, 2000

Statement regarding the book, "Darkness in El Dorado"

ANN ARBOR---Following is a statement from University of Michigan Provost Nancy Cantor on the e-mail discussion regarding the book, "Darkness in El Dorado," by Patrick Tierney, forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co.

The supporting research was conducted by the offices of the Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs, Vice President for Research, and General Counsel.

We have requested a pre-publication copy of the book from the publisher, but so far have not been able to obtain the manuscript. We are responding only to the allegations outlined in an e-mail message from two reviewers, Terry Turner of Cornell University and Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii. The e-mail makes reference to the work of James V. Neel, M.D., and Napoleon Chagnon, Ph.D., with the Yanomama of Venezuela. Dr. Neel died last February.

The University takes allegations of impropriety seriously and we have begun an internal inquiry. In the short time we have been engaged in this review, we have already found materials directly contradicting a number of the claims cited in the e-mail message regarding Dr. Neel and Dr. Chagnon. If the e-mail message correctly characterizes what is in Darkness in El Dorado," there may be other erroneous information that inaccurately portrays the research.

We believe that Mr. Tierney has not consulted important original source material that was readily available for review. Analysis of that material and other material from persons familiar with the expeditions, the measles outbreak and the measles vaccine refutes the allegations.

Below are listed some of the allegations and a description of our initial findings.

Claim: Improper use of a vaccine initiated and exacerbated a measles epidemic that killed "hundreds, perhaps thousands."

  Our findings: The measles outbreak occurred in November 1967. Measles was introduced into the region by a party of Brazilian missionaries before the January 1968 arrival of the Neel expedition. There is substantial evidence of the outbreak existing long before Dr. Neel left for Venezuela, so Dr. Neel could not have been the cause.

Previous studies in 1966 had indicated a substantial absence of measles antibody in the Yanomama. There were some individuals in Villages J and W with antibodies to measles, indicating there had been sporadic prior exposure but many individuals were not protected. Accordingly, in the fall of 1967, in anticipation of the January 1968 expedition, Dr. Neel initiated requests to pharmaceutical companies and obtained 2,000 doses of Edmonston B vaccine plus gamma globulin. He also consulted with a Centers for Disease Control expert on measles on the best way to administer the vaccine.

Upon hearing of the outbreak, Dr. Neel acted quickly and responsibly to stop the spread of the disease. The records show Dr. Neel spent at least two full weeks providing vaccine, antibiotics and medical care as needed. Forty Indians and Brazilians in the immediate area of the noted cases received vaccine and then Dr. Neel initiated an extensive program of immunization throughout the region. One thousand doses were administered by Dr. Neel; the rest were provided to and given by missionaries and medical auxiliaries of the Venezuelan government to "get ahead" of the disease. All doses, except for the original 40, were given with gamma globulin. At that time, administration of vaccine, with or without concomitant gamma globulin, was the accepted and recommended procedure. No death or serious untoward events resulted from use of the vaccine with or without gamma globulin.

Edmonston B vaccine, developed in 1958, was an internationally tested and safe vaccine. Dr. Samuel L. Katz, professor emeritus and chairman of Pediatrics at Duke University Medical School, was the co-developer of the vaccine (with John F. Enders) and he reports that its use was safe and appropriate in this population.

It is claimed that a "fatal" epidemic was "caused" or "greatly exacerbated" by the vaccine. Live attenuated vaccine has never been shown to be transmissible from a recipient to a subsequent contact. Dr. Katz has studied the vaccine in developed and developing nations and never saw any transmission of vaccine to susceptible contacts. Moreover, death as a result of the vaccine is an exceedingly rare event in any population. In fact, Dr. Katz reports that "despite the administration of millions of doses of vaccines to children throughout the world, the only deaths known to have occurred were in several youngsters who were under intense therapy for their leukemia and more recently a young adult with AIDS."

Claim: Refusal of medical care so that Dr. Neel could observe an epidemic.

  Our findings: Dr. William Oliver, professor emeritus and chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Health System, was on several of the expeditions and reports that on every expedition a large quantity of medical supplies was brought in and used to treat the Yanomama. Dr. Neel's basic philosophy was to treat all illnesses before any scientific observations. Each day he would treat any new illnesses before starting the day's planned studies. Any medicines not used would be left with resident missionaries with detailed instructions for use.

In the case of the measles outbreak, the facts are clear. The predicted death rate from untreated measles is 30 percent to 36 percent; the most common complication is bacterial pneumonia. In this outbreak, the death rate was a very low 8.8 percent, showing clearly that proper medical care was provided. The records show that the research team systematically and aggressively treated every patient with all available medications. As indicated above, Dr. Neel stopped his research work so that he could provide medical care to the population.

Claim: Secret radiation experiments were conducted.

  Our findings: Dr. Neel did not conduct any radiation studies with the Yanomama. In 1962 and 1968 a physician named Marcel Roche conducted a population study of thyroid uptake in the lowlands of Venezuela and high in the Andes showing that at very high altitudes there was a uniformly higher thyroid radioiodine uptake. This study used proper doses of radioiodine (I-131). Use of radioiodine was then and remains today a commonly used diagnostic tool to measure pathological conditions including thyroid function.
(See: Riviere, R., Comar, D., Colonomos, M., Desenne, J. and Roche, M. "Iodine Deficiency Without Goiter in Isolated Yanomama Indians: A Preliminary Note". In: Biomedical Challenges Presented by the American Indian. Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, September 1968, pp 120-123.)
Dr. Neel was well-known for his extensive study on the aftereffects of atomic radiation on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and their children. A review of Dr. Neel's field journal and daily logs makes it clear that he never conducted any "secret radiation" studies.

Claim: The e-mail suggests that Mr. Tierney documents that Dr. Neel held extreme eugenic theories.

  Our findings: Dr. Neel's published works show that he was a critic of eugenics from his graduate student days in the late 1930s. Far from holding "eugenics" positions, Dr. Neel strongly supported maintaining the rich diversity of the entire human gene pool and urged "egalitarian control of population growth" to protect the future of our species. (See: Neel, "Physician to the Gene Pool: Genetic Lessons and Other Stories" New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994). He championed the view that each individual be able to maximize genetic potential; this is a far cry from eugenic efforts to "improve" the species through reproductive theory and policy. His work with the Yanomama helped them survive the pre-existing measles outbreak and was a humanitarian act by a compassionate physician.

Allegations, particularly those involving academic work of highly distinguished scholars in their field, require a fair and proper peer review -- not a sensationalized public discussion in the headlines and over the Internet.

As soon as we can obtain a copy of the book, we will review the actual allegations in the book and the evidence and documentation the author uses as the basis for his claims. We also will be reviewing all of the original source materials we have available to us, including Dr. Neel's own research logs. If upon review of the book we determine it necessary to continue the review process, we will consider additional steps including asking outside experts to evaluate the allegations.

Contact: Julie Peterson
Phone: (734) 936-5190
E-mail: juliep@umich.edu

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