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Life Among the Anthros’

To the Editors:

Clifford Geertz, in his “Life Among the Anthros” [NYR, February 8], describes the memo my colleague Leslie Sponsel and I sent to the leaders of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to warn them of the allegations contained in the original galley version of Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, as “breathless.” That’s fair—the allegations were breath-taking, and by the time we read them only a few weeks remained before the announced date of publication of the book. We thought it urgent to persuade the AAA to investigate the many horrendous allegations as quickly as possible, and rushed off our letter accordingly. Geertz implies that we should have investigated them ourselves (“caught our breaths”) before sending the memo, but this misses the point: the memo was precisely a call for investigation by an appropriate professional association with far greater resources for the task than we possessed.

Geertz quotes our assertion that the expedition provided no medical help. This is wrong. They did give medical help during their stops for research, and sent supplies of vaccine and medicine to missionaries to help the sick at their posts; but as Tierney reports, they did not follow established vaccination practice and stay with groups suffering from both measles and severe vaccination reactions until other medical help could arrive. Tierney’s description of such a hasty evacuation, during which [James] Neel was recorded scolding the cinematographer, [Timothy] Asch, for filming a colleague trying to give medicine to a sick Yanomami, because medical assistance was not the proper business of the expedition, catches the prevailing attitude, which translated itself in various ways into short-changing medical care in favor of research.* Geertz calls our claim that our message was “a confidential memorandum not meant for general circulation” “quite implausible,” but that is exactly what it was. He seems to mean that we were implausibly naive about the technological possibilities for forwarding e-mail messages and should have known better. Perhaps so, but the fact remains that the letter was addressed to specified persons, and was sent to them alone. Circulating the allegations described in the memo beyond the original addresses was no part of our purpose. That was the effect of its being leaked onto the Web by parties unknown. Whoever leaked it has never come forward, presumably because he or she is aware that his or her act was a breach of trust.

Once the memo was leaked and circulated without our permission, we have both done what we could to investigate the allegations themselves. I have just finished going through Neel’s papers in the archive of the American Philosophical Society. The picture that emerges from them is different in important respects from any thus far put forward in the discussions that have raged over the past five months. It is clear, for example, from Neel’s and some of his colleagues’ correspondence that vaccinations against measles and several other diseases were originally planned as research tools for studying the ability of the Yanomami to develop resistance to the stress of alien diseases, long before they learned of an actual outbreak of measles in their research area. This supports Tierney’s claim that the vaccinations were, at least originally, conceived as an “experiment.” It is also clear, however, that the vaccinations were never the main purpose or priority of the expedition, even after the epidemic was discovered. Neel and the others made no additional preparations to deal with the epidemic (such as bringing in additional medical personnel or training their nonmedical personnel) beyond the vaccine they brought with them.

Most importantly, once in the field they kept to their previously planned research program and itinerary, which allowed insufficient time and flexibility for urgently needed medical work. The medical care they did give prevented the completion of some of their planned research, but their persistence, under Neel’s leadership, in attempting to carry out the higher-priority research tasks forced them into corner-cutting and improvisation that had deleterious medical effects. Unable or unwilling to stay the requisite ten days with those they vaccinated to see them through the severe reactions to the Edmonston vaccine, which were sometimes indistinguishable from the disease itself, for example, they adopted the expedient of vaccinating only half the population of villages so that the unvaccinated could care for those suffering from the reactions. This, however, left the unvaccinated to face the epidemic without the protection of immunization. The medical disaster that overtook the Yanomami was thus in part the result of the expedition’s unwillingness to sacrifice its scientific objectives to make possible an adequate response to the medical crisis. When the chips were down, the Yanomami as patients took second place to the Yanomami as objects of scientific investigation.

Terence S. Turner
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

  1. *

    Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado (Norton, 2000), pp. 75–76.

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