Measles and the Yanomami: did a Scientist “kill Amazon indians to test race theory”? No.

According to recent activity across various social networks, those evil scientists are at it again. And this one must be true as it’s from no less a robust and upstanding source as The Guardian

“Thousands of South American indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds, in order for US scientists to study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, according to a book out next month.”

It’s got it all: scientists conducting eugenic experiments on an innocent native people, funded by an organisation that makes atomic bombs, and using vaccines to spread disease and cause death.

Many don’t bother to read the article – they don’t have to, the headline confirms everything they already knew. They click ‘like’, share and retweet it, tag it with keywords such as ‘white supremacy’ and ‘eugenics’, and make comments referring to Ebola, AIDS, the Tuskegee Experiment, the depopulation agenda, MMR, racism and, of course, the Nazis. Some versions also show an indigenous tribesperson covered in a mosaic of awful welts – presumably the very measles that was deliberately set off to run free within this jungle utopia of a savage yet noble people at one with nature.

Those who do follow the link and read the article do not have their minds changed. In the late-1960s, a “new book” reveals, an anthropologist named James Neel, backed by the US Atomic Energy Commission, administered a harmful measles vaccine, Edmonston-B, to intentionally create or exasperate a measles epidemic among the vulnerable Yanomami people in the forests of Venezuala, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of men, women and children.

Let the outrage pour forth!

Or … perhaps, you should take a closer look. Note, for instance, the date of the article. It was written in September 2000 – over fourteen years ago. And what about the picture (warning: unpleasant) … is that really measles? It doesn’t look right. An image search reveals it is not a case of measles, and is not a member of the Yanomami – in fact the young girl in the photograph is not even South American. She is a Bangladeshi with smallpox, and the image comes from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library (it’s not actually part of the Guardian article, someone has added the photo somewhere along the line and it has accompanied the Facebook version of the link ever since).

Once your skeptical hackles have been raised, if, in fact, they ever have, it is not hard to find out what became of this terrible crime against humanity. It never happened.

The Guardian article consists primarily of quotes from a leaked letter written by Professor Terry Turner of Cornell University to the president of the American Anthropological Association. Turner had just read the proofs of a forthcoming book, Darkness in El Dorado, by journalist Patrick Tierney, and wanted to warn the Association so it could prepare its defence.

The allegations in the book are damning and Turner’s assessment is equally harsh and accusatory. Neel, aided by ‘maverick’ anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and funded by the US Atomic Energy Commission, used the Edmonston-B vaccine to instigate measles – a highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease – in order to observe ‘survival of the fittest’ in action. The book is copiously annotated, was previewed and reviewed widely and positively, including prominently in the New York Times, and was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award.

But even before it was published, in November 2000, Tierney’s story started to unravel, causing the author to apparently edit a number of his claims before going to press and to distance himself from Turner’s suspiciously enthusiastic ‘leaked’ commentary. Turner, it emerged, was one of the people Tierney had thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

The resulting inquiry by the American Anthropological Association – though it concluded that Neel saved many lives through vaccination – was a mess, selective in its evidence, biased from the outset, and seemingly a panicked shot fired in self-defence rather than a rational and balanced look at the facts. Though the damage was done, Turner himself retracted his statement that Neel was responsible for the measles outbreak once he actually bothered to look into the facts of the matter, and the AAA later admitted their report was flawed and withdrew their support of Tierney’s work three years later.

James Neel did not deliberately introduce a measles epidemic to the Yanomami at the bidding of his dark masters, the US Atomic Energy Commission. The US AEC were widely involved in supporting genetic research and Neel had worked for them previously in relation to Japanese victims of the atomic bombs. This was all out in the open, there was nothing sinister or unusual about it. The Yanomami represented, for Neel, a living example of humankind as it might have existed in its pre-agricultural state, offering a near-perfect opportunity to research and compare their genetic structure with modern populations – Richard Dawkins described them as “a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world”.

One aspect of Neel’s expedition was a humanitarian one – to vaccinate the tribespeople against measles, a disease he discovered they were particularly susceptible to due to practically no genetic history with the virus, and one that was dangerously close to spreading among them. Neel consulted with experts to choose the right vaccine: true, the Edmonston-B strain had slightly increased side effects (a higher fever) compared to the more recently developed Schwartz strain, but it conferred longer-lasting immunity and the fever could be pacified with an additional shot of gamma globulin. After nineteen-million doses given (and, despite being phased out, it was still being used in the US at the time), not one had been the cause of a measles outbreak. Two-thousand doses of the vaccine were donated to Neel’s mission by Pharmaceutical companies on the grounds they were to be used for humanitarian purposes and not for scientific research.

To further put this accusation in the grave, where it belongs, a close examination of the dates reveals that measles reached the Yanomami at least a week before Neel arrived (it was most likely brought in by the daughter of a missionary at Toototobi). His carefully planned vaccination strategy had to be abandoned as he and his team raced to try and control the epidemic. Unfortunately they couldn’t prevent its spread, but there is no doubt they saved lives. The claim that Neel deliberately withheld treatment can also be dismissed – with nurses employed and documented requests for doctors and penicillin made by radio. The expected 30% death rate turned out to be just 8% thanks to Neel’s medical direction.

The main point of Darkness in El Dorado, and Turner’s conveniently leaked letter to the AAA, seems to have been a smear campaign against Neel’s assistant, Napoleon Chagnon, something that had been rumbling away for a good few years, involving two opposing tribes of anthropologists and their respective ideologies. That debate, relating to the ethics of studying and intervening in the lives of indigenous peoples, is a separate issue, but the wider accusations of the book have been roundly discredited multiple times, including investigations by the American Society of Human Genetics, Alice Dreger in Human Nature, the University of Michigan, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, by Kim Hill of the University of New Mexico, and John Tooby at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

It is interesting to note that in the years since his book was published and debunked, Tierney has drifted into the arms of the modern anti-vaccination movement, in particular becoming a friend of the discredited pariah Andrew Wakefield. Here he has found an audience who are all too eager to lap up his tales of human experimentation and vaccine-induced death and injury.

And so perhaps this is why Tierney’s work is once again getting an airing, this time on the Facebook pages of those who think vaccines are the government’s way of  controlling the population and polluting the perfect immune systems of their children, rather than what they actually are – the cause of millions of lives saved and the near eradication of once common killers from our privileged existence.

But how can they resist such a damning headline? The blame for that should lie with The Guardian. It’s blatantly provocative, without foundation, and worthy of the most lurid of the gutter press (the article appeared later in the Manchester Guardian with the almost-as-bad headline ‘US scientist brought death to the Amazon’). There’s no visible update to inform the reader that the story presented has since been definitively consigned to the rubbish-tip of smear journalism and it’s even tagged with the label ‘MMR’, despite that having nothing to do with what’s reported.

So it lives on, a time-capsule causing heartache to those whose reputations it tramples (or their families, James Neel died seven months previously), and provoking real harm in a world where distrust of vaccines in developing countries results in the continuance of deadly disease and the murder of those who work to eradicate them.

As of the time of writing, Paul Brown’s ‘Scientist killed Amazon indians’ article has over 27,000 shares. Its follow-up, James Meek’s ‘Professor denies causing measles epidemic‘ has zero shares. There seems to be no further update or reporting from The Guardian dealing with the eventual debunking of Turner and Tierney’s false allegations.

The Yanomami-measles link itself is a virus – reactivated after years, spreading from one Facebook page to another, ratcheting up the clicks and infecting viewpoints. At some stage someone has added the smallpox image, an adjuvant to increase the emotional reaction among the uncritical devotees of an imagined Illuminati-lead world. They blindly repeat and publicise the misinformation because it supports their agenda – and a lie is the perfect shape for an ignorance-shaped hole.


Please read historian of medicine Alice Dreger’s response to the resurgence of the Guardian article: And the Dead Claims Shall Rise (8 Mar 2015)


I have been accused of writing an article with no basis in fact and no sources. The article is peppered with links to back up the statements made. However, here is a more visible list of the most relevant links, for convenience:

Scientist ‘killed Amazon indians to test race theory‘ by Paul Brown, The Guardian, 23 Sep 2000
Open email from Dr. Samuel Katz, co-developer of the measles vaccine, 28 Sep 2000
Professor denies causing measles epidemic by James Meek, The Guardian, 4 Oct 2000
University of Michigan Report of the Ongoing Investigation of the Neel-Chagnon Allegations, University of Michigan, 20 Oct 2000
Jungle Fever – Did two US scientists start a genocidal epidemic in the Amazon, or was The New Yorker duped?, John Tooby, 25 Oct 2000
Hearts of Darkness by John Horgan, The New York Times, 12 Nov 2000
The Turner-Sponsel Memo, Terence Turner, 13 Nov 2000
Report of the Medical Team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on Accusations Contained in Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, Nov 2000
Statement by Kim Hill of the University of New Mexico, April 2001
Response to Allegations against James V. Neel in Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney, American Society of Human Genetics, 19 Nov 2001
El Dorado Task Force Papers, Volume I, American Anthropological Association, 18 May 2002
AAA Rescinds Acceptance of the El Dorado Report, American Anthropological Association, Sep 2005
Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association by Alice Dreger, 16 Feb 2011