By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
Seventy-three years ago, Elizabeth Peabody Trevett, a pediatrician and pioneer in promoting mass vaccination for infants, gave birth to a boy named John who became the seventh child ever diagnosed with autism. She presumably vaccinated her baby, and perhaps herself while pregnant, with the same shots she administered to her own patients. One of those shots, the newly developed diphtheria toxoid, was the first to contain the ethyl mercury preservative, thimerosal.
Today, pediatricians and public health officials scoff at concerns that thimerosal, still used today in most flu shots recommended for all pregnant women and infants older than 6 months, could cause autism. But after researching our new book, "The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic," we are much less sanguine about such an outcome.
Our conclusion: The facts of Case 7 fit with a common familial background exposure in the first cases to newly commercialized ethyl mercury compounds in agriculture and vaccines. They suggest children, then as now, are at risk from the dangerous and indefensible practice of injecting them with mercury for the stated purpose of protecting their health.
Elizabeth Peabody Trevett graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and won a fellowship to Harvard where she was one of seven pediatricians who pioneered the well-baby visit – at which vaccines are routinely administered. Her son John was born in November 1937. She subsequently divorced her husband, psychiatrist Laurence Trevett, and resumed using her maiden name, Peabody.
A few years later, back in Maryland, she was quoted about the importance of vaccination in an Annapolis newspaper article: “Too many parents, said Dr. Peabody, have the proper shots given and then relax, forgetting that booster shots are needed and that immunization does wear off. Speaking specifically of some of the most prevalent ailments, she stated that a child cannot be vaccinated against smallpox too often and it should be done for the first time when a baby is between three months and one year of age. In the case of diphtheria, booster shots are extremely important.”
Diphtheria was the first mass vaccine to contain thimerosal, starting in the 1930s just as the first autism cases were identified. It would have been widely available at a teaching hospital like Harvard at the time John was born.
Following her passion for public health, Elizabeth Peabody later set up a well-baby clinic in Iraq, again emphasizing the importance of vaccinating thousands of babies, and then joined the Public Health Service in Atlanta as a regional administrator for children’s health programs.
As flu season kicks into high gear this year in the United States, infants, pregnant women and nursing mothers are among the millions of Americans whom public health officials are urging with unprecedented fervor to get a flu shot. Because most flu shots contain mercury, and because the CDC has declined to express a preference for giving these groups a mercury-free version, this means millions of the most vulnerable among us are getting a significant dose of the dangerous neurotoxin – some at grocery stores and airports and retailers, some without even having to get out of their car. Tracking short-term, localized and mild adverse reactions would seem difficult, and following up on any associations with the onset of chronic or delayed outcomes like autism all but impossible.
This situation is plagued with illogic and bad judgment. The very same Public Health Service Peabody worked for -- which now includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – along with the American Academy of Pediatrics has urged manufacturers not to put mercury in childhood vaccines. This was in July 1999, and over the next several years mercury was phased out of those vaccines – except, inexplicably, for flu shots. The government in fact greatly expanded flu shot coverage recommendations so that now all pregnant women, nursing mothers and infants over six months old are targeted for the shots. This earlier exposure to mercury has the effect of offsetting the removal from other vaccines; in fact, it moves the timing of the shots forward to a much more vulnerable point in the development of the infant brain and the immune system. Adjusted for weight, fetuses and infants are still getting a substantial portion of the mercury dose that first caused concern.
The government originally acted to remove mercury because a Congressionally ordered review found that as more and more shots were added to the infant vaccine schedule during the 1990s, the amount of mercury to which a child could be exposed exceeded the EPA guideline for maximum safe mercury exposure. And because mercury is so dangerous to humans and especially infants – it is the second-deadliest element on Earth – and has caused terrible poisonings all around the world, the idea was a sound one based on the precautionary principle and the well-known medical admonition to "First, do no harm."
Precaution has not exactly been in the watchword in the medical industry’s use of mercury. Our book traces its reckless use in medicine and manufacturing for half-a-millennium; doctors treated the skin ravages of syphilis with mercury ointment and vapors after Columbus brought the disease back from the New World in 1494; eventually a much more toxic mercury compound, mercuric chloride, was ingested and injected to try to “cure” syphilis (only the advent of penicillin the 1940s did that). We found a strong pattern of evidence that suggests mercuric chloride interacted with the disease to create the deadliest form of syphilis, called general paralysis of the insane. Doctors never noticed.
So it has gone for centuries. Our research strongly suggests that the first cases of autism among children born in the 1930s were connected with exposure to three newly commercialized ethyl mercury compounds: a seed disinfectant, a lumber treatment, and the vaccine preservative thimerosal. (All three were invented and patented by one man, University of Chicago chemist Morris Kharasch, one of the leaders in the development of organic chemistry.)
What leads us to this conclusion? We were able to identify seven of the 11 children described in Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Leo Kanner’s landmark 1943 report (John Trevett, disguised as "Herbert B., was Case 7 in this series); Kanner, the dean of child psychiatrists who wrote the first child psychiatry textbook eight years earlier with no mention of autism, said these children’s behavior differed “markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far.” In his report, he used first names and last initials to mask the children’s identities, but we used clues in the detailed family descriptions to find them. The results clearly point to an environmental trigger in these first cases – specifically, ethyl mercury.
-- Case 2 was the son of a plant pathologist working with fungicides at the federal government’s Beltsville Agriculture Research Center in Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital. His extensive archive shows him working with mercury compounds from the beginning of his career, and contains a pamphlet for the ethyl mercury seed disinfectant Ceresan, a dust that could easily have gotten on his clothes and exposed his pregnant wife or newborn infant. (She had kidney trouble during pregnancy, which can be a sign of mercury poisoning.) The father’s resume shows him working with Ceresan when his son was born.
-- Case 3 was the son of a forestry professor whose research places him in a laboratory where early tests on wood preservation were being conducted with Lignasan, also an ethyl mercury compound.
-- And Case 7, as we have described, was the pediatrician and vaccine advocate for the Public Health Service. Several others in the first 11 had medical backgrounds that could put them at risk of medicinal mercury exposure.
Today John Trevett lives in a group home in Maryland, where we visited him as we prepared our book. He does not speak, but he appears to understand what is said. He is no trouble and seems well-cared for, but it a sad and eerie end for someone whose parents were both doctors and whose mother was a medical pioneer.
In our book, we describe this ongoing tragedy of overlooked mercury poisoning in depth and detail. Here, it is important to say that the Public Health Service may be just the latest in a parade of distinguished “experts” and esteemed organizations to miss the clues – even a clue that comes at a terrible price from one of their own pioneering pediatricians.
Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill are co-authors of “The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic,” published in September by Thomas Dunne Books.