Thomas N. Headland
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When Did the Measles Epidemic Begin among the Yanomami?

Thomas N. Headland


When Did the Measles Epidemic Begin
among the Yanomami?

Thomas N. Headland
SIL International

[A shorter version of this paper is scheduled to be published by
the American Anthropological Association in the "Commentary" section of
Anthropology News Volume 42, Number 1, January 2001]

This version dated December 9, 2000

In November 2000 journalist Patrick Tierney finally published his exposé titled Darkness In El Dorado (WW Norton publishers). The book makes very serious allegations against anthropologists. After I read the book's galleys last summer, I spent some time looking into the most serious claim in the book. This was Tierney's heavily implied accusation that anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and geneticist James Neel had started a measles epidemic in the Yanomami population in January 1968—maybe even on purpose—in a vaccination experiment that killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of Yanomami Indians. Yet as I worked my way through Tierney's book, including his 1,599 endnotes in tiny six-point type, the evidence did not impress me. I narrowed my research to one specific question: Did the measles epidemic among the Yanomami occur before or after Chagnon and Neel arrived in the Yanomami area on January 21, 1968?

The evidence I review here indicates that there were at least four outbreaks of measles among the Yanomami before Chagnon and Neel arrived in 1968. Three were on the Brazil side of the border and one in Venezuela. According to John Peters (Wilfrid Laurier U) the earliest measles death at his fieldwork location among the Mucajai Yanomami, Brazil, was a Yanomami man named Tehara (#027 in his records) who died on April 1, 1967. Soon after, Peters told me (personal correspondence, November 12 and November 14, 2000), a second measles epidemic broke out among the Apiau Yanomami, Brazil, about 15 miles south of his location. Peters states in his new book co-authored with John Early (The Xilixana Yanomami) that "The Apiau Ninam [Yanomami] suffered an estimated one hundred deaths [from measles in 1967-68]" (p. 254).

The third measles epidemic, for which there is solid credible eyewitness documentation, occurred in two adjacent Yanomami villages on the Toototobi River in September 1967. This was in Brazil about 15 miles south of the Venezuela border. We know the source of this epidemic and the exact number of Yanomami who died from it.

At the recent annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in San Francisco there was an "Open Forum" on Friday evening (November 17, 2000) to debate the allegations in Tierney's book. Here is what I stated from the microphone to over a thousand anthropologists present at that Open Forum:

I submitted [yesterday, November 16] to the AAA [president] two documents from American missionaries who personally eye-witnessed a measles epidemic among the Yanomami on the Toototobi River in September and October 1967. The fact to note here is that the measles epidemic at Toototobi began before Neel and Chagnon arrived in the Venezuelan Yanomami area on January 21, 1968. The following letter was written by Mr. Keith Wardlaw and sent to me on November 11, 2000. I read to you here relevant portions of Mr. Wardlaw's letter:

"Dear Mr. Headland: I and my family returned to Toototobi [from Manaus and Boa Vista] in August [1967]. After a few days, our two-year old daughter Lorraine began to run a fever. Later she broke out in a rash, which our Brazilian missionary co-worker diagnosed as the measles. It is unknown where Lorraine was exposed to the measles. The Yanomami in the village where we were located were having a typical Yanomami feast when the measles broke out. They had invited three neighboring villages to participate. We estimate that the total of all present was somewhere between 150 and 200. With very few exceptions, everyone of the [150-plus] Yanomami present at the feast came down with the measles in September or October 1967. Most of the Indians received a series of penicillin injections, according to the instructions of the doctor [Charles Patton] in Boa Vista. Seventeen of the Yanomami died during this epidemic. Let me reaffirm, it is our conviction that Dr. Neel and Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon had absolutely nothing to do with the introduction of measles among the Yanomami Indians on the Toototobi River. As my wife and I have over the years looked back upon the circumstance, the measles was unknowingly introduced from our daughter being exposed during our time in Manaus."

I concluded my statement by saying, "I have given my full report of this to the president of the AAA." I also had ten letters written by Dr. and Mrs. Charles Patton in 1967 and 1968, giving their first-hand account of the same epidemic. I gave those letters to the AAA president with my report. The Pattons were American missionaries at that time with Missionary Aviation Fellowship, living at Boa Vista, Brazil. Charles Patton is a retired physician and former member of the American Medical Association, living today in Indiana. Dr. Patton was present at Toototobi for a short period in September 1967 during the epidemic. He was the one to officially diagnose the outbreak as measles and to help the Wardlaws and other missionaries treat the sick at Toototobi. I talked numerous times by phone and e-mail to both Dr. Patton and the Wardlaws in October and November 2000. Both couples gave me permission to make public the documents that they sent to me, and to give them to the AAA president. Scott Ross, the attorney for New Tribes Mission, also granted me this permission. Click here to see Wardlaw's full letter, and germane sections only from the ten letters that the Pattons wrote about the epidemic.

I hope that critics of missionaries will not take my commentary here or my report out of context, or use it to criticize missionaries. Wardlaw's little daughter was 27 months old when she broke out with measles at Toototobi in late August. In fact, two medical doctors had just examined her earlier that month, one of whom was Dr. Patton, and found her to be in good health. Both doctors cleared her and her parents to return to their mission post at Toototobi. Who could have known that this little child had somehow been exposed to measles just a few days before they flew in? A few days after they arrived, she came down with a fever, and a few days after that, with spots. By then it was too late to isolate her from the 150 Yanomami in the village there. All but one or two of the Indians came down with measles in September and October, and seventeen of them died. Anyone who understands the epidemiology of measles in an Amazonian Indian population with no previous exposure would wonder why only seventeen died, instead of the majority of the population, as one might expect. The reason was because Dr. Patton flew in on an emergency flight bringing with him hundreds of vials of penicillin. Dr. Patton told me that the missionaries nursed the whole village night and day throughout the epidemic. Patton said that they not only gave penicillin injections to all who were sick, but cooked their food and even gathered firewood for them during the periods when virtually all of the Yanomami there were lying sick and near death in their hammocks (phone interview, October 30 and November 13, 2000).

Incidentally, as readers will learn if they read Wardlaw's letter on my website, the missionaries at Toototobi had a large supply of measles vaccine on hand, which James Neel had sent to them from the USA "in early 1967." So why didn't the missionaries vaccinate the Indians at Toototobi? It is heartbreaking to read in Wardlaw's letter to me that in 1967 the missionaries asked the Brazilian SPI (Society for the Protection of Indians, today's FUNAI) several times for permission to vaccinate the Yanomami at Toototobi. Each time, both Wardlaw and the NTM lawyer told me, the SPI officials denied that permission, saying that they themselves would do the vaccinating. They never did. And by September it was too late.

After I spoke at the AAA Open Forum, I learned that there is another scholar investigating when the epidemic began. On November 27, I received an e-mail from Robert Cox, (curator of manuscripts at the American Philosophical Society, rscox@amphilsoc.org). Cox has found other archival data that mention two of the three measles outbreaks in Brazil that I review above. Cox sent me two letters that Neel wrote in 1967 (now posted at www.tamu.edu/anthropology/Cox.html). Neel's first letter, written to the Instituto Venezolano do Investigaciones Cientifices, is asking for permission to vaccinate "all the Indians we come in contact with." Neel's December 11 letter says, in part,

According to our information, measles was first introduced on the Brazilian side, at Totootobi [sic] when the daughter of the missionary there, Keith Wardlaw, came down with measles which she had presumably contracted when the family was in Manaus on leave. About the time, measles appeared in Mucujai [sic]. We received a letter about a month ago from Dr. Charles Patten [sic, Patton], medical missionary in that area, concerning the severity of the disease. Now we have just had a letter from Mr. Robert Shaylor, Chief of the New Tribes Mission on the Upper Orinoco [Venezuela], that he has word that there is sickness amongst the Indians on the very high Orinoco, possibly due to measles….

Neel's second letter, written to the same Instituto on December 21, 1967, includes the following:

We [now] have information that there is a bad measles outbreak on the Brazilian side; I have now obtained 2000 doses of measles vaccine so that we can also innoculate [sic] the Yanomama against this. I am sure we will get every possible help from the missionaries under these circumstances….

Cox also sent me an article written by missionary James Barker that was published in October 1968 in the NTM mission magazine Brown Gold ("Vaccine Saves Many Guaica Lives," pp. 6-8). This article describes the measles outbreaks in Brazil at Toototobi and Mucajai and says both occurred in "September of 1967." (Cox's essay is to be published in January 2001 in Mendel Newsletter #10. It is titled "Salting Slugs in the Intellectual Garden: James Neel and Scientific Controversy in the Information Age.")

The Venezuela Epidemic

A fourth measles outbreak had begun among the Venezuelan Yanomami in December 1967, according to a Robert Shaylor quoted in Neel's December 11 letter quoted above. Cox sent me another article by "Mrs. Joe Dawson" that was published in the March 1968 issue of Brown Gold ("Measles Among the Indians") that confirms that this fourth epidemic had reached the Yanomami at Tamatama, Venezuela, by January 1968. Dawson gives her eyewitness account of the Tamatama epidemic, which began on or about January 13, and suffered its first death on January 26. This was a young boy named Antonio who died at 5:30 in the evening while being cared for by Mrs. Joe Dawson. He died just five days after Chagnon and Neel had arrived in Yanomamiland, at Ocamo mission, 70 miles SE of Tamatama, on January 21.

The evidence reviewed here from the two articles in Brown Gold, from Neel's two letters, from Early and Peters's book, from the 1967-68 letters by the Pattons, and from the letter by Keith Wardlaw, establishes beyond reasonable doubt that measles outbreaks began in four areas in Yanomamiland prior to Chagnon and Neel's arrival in 1968.


Thomas N. Headland is an anthropology consultant with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (renamed in 2000 to SIL International) and adjunct professor of linguistics at U Texas at Arlington. His Ph.D. is in ecological anthropology from the University of Hawaii. His specialties are tropical forest human ecology and Philippine Negritos.