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Deadly Spiral
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Science in Question

A new look at interference with a native people, and its consequences

Reviewed by Lori Jablons

Darkness in El Dorado The first edition of Darkness in El Dorado, published in 2000, sparked a controversy, particularly among scientists whose methods in dealing with the Yanomami in South America it had criticized. In his afterword to the new edition, the author writes, “It’s not hard to imagine why some anthropologists preferred to rebut charges about one epidemic instead of dealing with the larger issues raised in the book: the physical suffering and cultural deracination endured by the Yanomami, brought on by expeditions that spread disease, warfare, and cultural chaos among one of the most vulnerable groups in the world.” He notes, “As of this writing, five committees in Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States are investigating different aspects of the book. The needs of the Yanomami are receiving new attention.” Indeed, the book itself deserves a fresh look.

ast fortunes have been made in oil, iron, gold and diamonds in the mineral-rich Orinoco region of Venezuela and Brazil. But the Yanomami, an indigenous people, have themselves been seen as a “natural resource” for exploitation. Their systematic abuse is the subject of Patrick Tierney’s memorable Darkness in El Dorado.

When geneticists and anthropologists arrived in the land of the Yanomami, they not only sought wealth. According to Tierney, they thirsted for status. He describes their cataclysmic impact upon a people that, until the 1950s, had lived for millennia in virtual isolation in the rain forests.

Decision Made Not to Inform Test Subjects

As described by Tierney, the numerous travails of the Yanomami included experiments performed upon them without their knowledge or consent by doctors acting on behalf of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Those tests, involving toxic doses of radioactive iodine and iron, began in 1958.

Tierney, a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh who spent 11 years researching and writing Darkness in El Dorado, traces the Yanomami experiments back to the Manhattan Project, the effort directed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which, beginning in 1942, produced the atom bomb.

While much has been written over the last several decades about the Manhattan Project’s development of the bomb, some of its other work is not nearly as well known, such as a series of covert experiments on human subjects. Some of these tests, which injected radioactive plutonium and uranium into the victims, were carried out at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York, conveniently connected by tunnel to the Manhattan Project offices.

Tierney writes, “According to one of the doctors, a ‘deliberate decision was made not to inform the patients of the product that was injected’ ”—eerie foreshadowing to what would occur in the Orinoco region some 20 years later.

Tierney reports that geneticist James Neel served as “company commander” of the medical students and residents who ran much of Strong Memorial.

Through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, Tierney uncovered that the Yanomami were later used by Neel as a control group in studies of mutation rates of those exposed to radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Yanomami’s remoteness theoretically made them an ideal contrast to the bomb victims.

Tierney charts the lineage of genetic tests on the Yanomami, supervised by Neel, tracing them from the Manhattan Project’s human experiments through Neel’s later work.

Fatal Outbreak

During a 1968 expedition to Yanomamiland, under Neel’s direction, natives were administered a measles virus known as Edmonston B.

An ensuing measles outbreak, whether caused by the vaccines or not, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the Yanomami. Neel is said to have boasted that replication of the study of a measles epidemic among American Indians never previously exposed to the virus “under identical conditions will probably never be possible.”

Tierney describes Neel as a man with “a profoundly pessimistic view of ordinary people, particularly of democratic gene pools where any misfit could marry.” He notes that “Neel was the only known scientist who ever exposed a ‘virgin’ Amazon tribe” to the measles vaccine.

Tierney writes, “With sickness raging at the mission stations, there should have been an absolute ban on travel to the inland villages except for express emergency relief. But the widespread sickness was also related to the frenetic pace of scientific research in 1971.”

Researchers gathering blood traveled, Tierney writes, “through the malaria and cold epidemics sweeping the mission bases, picking up guides, paying everyone in steel, and never stopping for quarantine controls.”

As Tierney tells the story, Neel, who died in February 2000, and those he led afforded their Yanomami subjects the same respect they would give laboratory rats.

In the afterword to the new edition, Tierney notes that a Venezuelan government agency, the Office of Indigenous Affairs, has promised new regulations “regarding ethical criteria and explicit informed consent by the indigenous communities involved in future research.” The agency stated, “Perhaps the controversy elicited by Darkness in El Dorado should move us to reflect on certain methods and practices wherein by conceiving of indigenous societies as mere arenas for the testing of research hypotheses human subjects are in fact reduced to human objects.”

In Darkness in El Dorado, the author takes an unpopular stand within certain circles, but a brave one.

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