When Did the Measles Epidemic Begin among the Yanomami?

Thomas N. Headland


Letters written by Louise Patton and Charles Patton Written in 1967 and 1968 about the 1967 measles epidemic among the Yanomami at Toototobi, Brazil

(Only germane portions of their letters are printed here.)

(This is part of Headland's November 16th report to the AAA president)

To the President of the American Anthropological Association
From: Thomas N. Headland (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Dallas, Texas)
Date: November 16, 2000


The following quotes were taken from letters written by Mrs. Louise Lillian Patton, with some sections written by Dr. Charles Patton, to their mothers, from Boa Vista, Roraima, Brazil. I extracted these sections because they refer to Chagnon or Neel or to the measles epidemic that broke out among the Yanomami on the Toototobi River in September and October 1967. I plan to give copies of the ten complete letters to the President of the AAA on November 16, 2000. [Note added by TNH on December 9, 2000: I gave those ten full letters to the AAA president on November 16.] The Pattons gave me permission to list here their phone number and email: 765/447-7850; chaspatt@prodigy.net. TNH


"Boa Vista, January 16, 1967. Dear Mom,.... This afternoon the research team from the Univ. of Michigan arrived. This is the group that is going in to spend a month with the [Yanomami] Indians, doing research on Anthropology and Genetics. Charles was to go in with them for the first two weeks, but with Grady due in this week he's delaying the trip until later this month or the first of next month...."

"January 24, 1967. Dear Mom,.... The next couple of days [Charles] will probably spend getting ready for his 10 day trip to the jungle. He's leaving Saturday, flying to Sururucu; then the following Mon. or Tues. over to Tototobi [sic] with the doctors from the Univ. of Michigan...."

"Boa Vista, February 8, 1967. Dear Mom,.... Charles came back late Tuesday afternoon. Those 8 days seems so long. They sent over to Lethem, Guyana, for MAF's doctor Frank Davis. Joe flew over to get him, then took off for Toototobi to bring out Charles, Dr. Bill Oliver (of the research team) and the blood samples collected during the previous couple of days.... On the day Charles came home I'd planned an extra special meal, figuring he'd enjoy it after a week in the jungle [at Toototobi]. We invited Dr. Oliver to share it with us and to spend the night here, too. He left the next day for Manaus, then Belem and the States. So he added his hammock to the two the kids [our children?] are using these days...."

"Boa Vista, February 22, 1967. Dear Mom,.... Sunday, Dr. Neel and Napoleon Chagnon, the last of the U. of Michigan research team, came out of the jungle. We had them at our house for dinner. It was a pleasure to watch them eat. Nap, especially, ate as though he really enjoyed it. Then Charles got together with them over medical problems in the tribes they visited after Charles left them. They went on to Manaus Monday, hoped to get back to the U.S. Wednesday.... Dr. Oliver had taken back to the U.S. a roll of Charlie's film, taken in Toototobi. We received the pictures back today. He has some really good pictures of the Indians...."

"Boa Vista, August 17, 1967. Dear Mom,.... Have you had German measles? Wednesday I noticed that Susan [Pattons' daughter born in 1961] had broken out with a rash, to me it was Measles. Charles said it wasn't typical, but probably was. Then lo and behold I awoke Sunday morning with the same rash and a few more signs that said German Measles. And here I thought I had measles as a child. (Did I have both kinds, Mom? I know I had measles. Perhaps you don't recall either if it was regular--7 day--or just the 3 day kind, or both.)...."

"Boa Vista, August 24, 1967. Dear Mom, Bobby [Pattons's son] joined Susan and I with the "measles", but so far that seems to be it. Apart from being extra tired, you'd hardly know he was sick. He did enjoy his 2 days home from school...."

"BoaVista, September 3, 1967. Dear Mom,.... Lynda [Pattons's other daughter] had a school vacation this week--she got the German measles. It seems they are even going further. A couple of days before I got them [German measles], I'd gone out to the MAF base with Charles to visit a while with the Wardlaws [Keith and Myrtle Wardlaw of New Tribes Mission]. Their little girl [Lorraine, age 2] had a bad throat and [the Wardlaws] wanted him [Dr. Charles Patton] to see her before they returned to their [Yanomami] Indian tribe [at Toototobi]. We just got a letter from them telling of how little Lorraine broke out with the measles and complicated by her throat condition, she was really sick. Now they fear an outbreak among the Indians and would like Charles to come in [by plane] later this week, when they'd expect the Indians to start getting sick. I feel terrible about it all--for who would have thought I'd get the measles!...."

"Boa Vista, September 12, 1967. Dear Mom,.... Charles and Eldon flew into Toototobi on the 6th [of September]. He found out it was regular measles, not German measles, that the indians have. The Wardlaw's children picked it up in Manaus, so I feel somewhat better not being to blame. Another problem was severe flu with some cases of pneumonia which the indians had before the measles struck. One had died of pneumonia. Charles was kept on the go seeing the sick during the few hours they had to spend there [at Toototobi]. Later the Wardlaws and Chico (Brazilian missionary) were really kept busy as the measles spread more and more among the tribe...."

"Boa Vista, September 28, 1967. Dear Mom,.... I didn't realize 2 weeks had passed since the last letter. But the days have been busy enough to pass quickly. It's been a period of time in which Charles was more away than at home. Besides the 3 interior clinics scheduled each week, he made two more emergency trips into Toototobi, staying over-night there each time.... The last time Charles was there 3 Indians had died, only 1 definitely as a result of the measles. Since then we hear that 5 or 6 more have died. There were over 100 cases of measles, probably close to 150 when the final count is in. With nearly the whole tribe sick at once, the missionaries had to get food and fire-wood for them, as well as medicine, so they were kept plenty busy. Charles has seen all kinds of complications of the measles besides the most common--pneumonia. Encephalitis, eye scarring, dysentery, etc. The word today was that they are getting over the worst of it...."

"Boa Vista, January 19, 1968. Dear Mom,.... The plane has been kept busy since it went back into the air. Clinic trips plus moving of missionary personnel back into the jungle stations, as soon as the threat of chickenpox was over. We are all amazed that no one else caught it, in spite of exposure.... Right now there's a group of about 40 university students (medical, dental, nursing, agronomists, veterinarians, engineers, etc.) from southern Brazil, waiting here in Boa Vista for an Air Force airplane to take them to various interior villages and several jungle stations. This is a government project to get them acquainted with the needs in the interior of Brazil. At 2 jungle stations they'll be given the job of inoculation the indians against measles. 1000 doses of measles vaccine have been donated by drug companies in the U.S., and it arrived last week. Temperature and reaction records must be kept on everyone getting the vaccine.... That's about it for today."