The Philadelphia physician consulted for a vaccine manufacturer and staunchly defended the vaccine industry, denying immunizations could cause a neurological disorder. He invented a pharmaceutical product that would make him millions. To the popular press, he was the vaccine industry spokesman – denying vaccine damage in his writing to The New York Times while failing to disclose blatant conflicts of interest. He abused statistics and exploited his MD status to gain undue credibility with the public, while multiple public health authorities backed his views. He was extremely critical of parents of vaccine-injured children. The vaccine he defended was harvested from a farm animal, putting human health at risk.
And he died the year Paul Offit was born – 1951.
His name was Dr. Albert Barnes – a physician and consulting chemist for the smallpox vaccine manufacturer H.K. Mulford Co. at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, there was a controversy raging over Mulford’s smallpox vaccinations and whether they were responsible for an outbreak of tetanus cases in the neighboring city of Camden, N.J. The concept of regulatory laws to ensure the safety and effectiveness of vaccination did not even exist, and contracting a deadly, acute illness such as tetanus from a contaminated vaccine was a real risk back then. With nine children dead, Camden had one of the worst single outbreaks of post-vaccination tetanus on record. Across the river in Philadelphia, half the public school desks were empty due to fears of the vaccine.
To get to the bottom of this tragedy, the Camden Board of Health commissioned none other than Dr. Barnes – consultant to H.K Mulford Co. - to determine the root cause. The results were hardly surprising:
“It is hence evident that the infection from tetanus could not have been caused by the vaccine,” he wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times on November 19, 1901.“All the vaccine employed has been subjected to rigid bacteriological examination, and in not a single instance have tetanus germs been found.”
Who was really to blame for the cause of tetanus, according to Dr. Barnes?
“In the Camden cases, the patients’ arms after vaccination were neglected by the parents of the children…In not one of the cases had the vaccination received proper care, but had been exposed to infection from every possible source.”
Answer: “the parents”
“In every one of the Camden cases the doctors who performed the vaccinations were not again consulted until the appearance of symptoms of tetanus, when they found the vaccination uncovered, except by dirty clothing, rags &c.”
Dr. Barnes’ entire letter is archived at The New York Times for anyone who can stomache it. (Scroll to the bottom for the beginning of the letter.) Note that the letter only mentions “seven” cases, suggesting two more children would die of post-vaccination tetanus in Camden: (See HERE)
What Barnes ultimately concluded was that the parents failed their children for not having their vaccination wounds routinely examined and kept clean by physicians – a claim that is now known to be ridiculous, but seemed plausible 110 years ago. In fact, it actually sounds more plausible than Paul Offit’s claim that a baby’s immune system can take up to 100,000 vaccines and be okay.
Like Dr. Offit, Dr. Barnes was also developing a drug that may have further conflicted his position on the H.K. Mulford vaccine and would eventually make him millions of dollars – a topical antiseptic drug he would trademark the following year under the brand name “Argyrol,” that would dominate the market before being replaced by antibiotics. In his letter to the Times, Dr. Barnes stressed the importance of keeping vaccine wounds “scrupulously clean” – arguing that the vaccine itself was not to blame. Did Dr. Barnes purposely withhold his connection to the pharmaceutical under development because he saw a potential market in future recipients of vaccines?
What Dr. Barnes certainly did not talk about was how Mulford’s smallpox vaccine was harvested from the underbelly of cows inside a filthy stable - a breeding ground for tetanus spores just as Offit is quiet about the fatal pig wasting virus in his own vaccine. Eventually, the definitive paper that finally proved that HK Mulford’s vaccine caused Camden’s outbreak of post-vaccination tetanus was published in The Lancet – nearly a century before the journal would publish Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s controversial paper – ushering in the first attempts at vaccine regulation in the United States (though unlike MMR maker GlaxoSmithKline, H.K. Mulford never became The Lancet editor’s boss).
What’s so remarkable about this, other than the many parallels to the present, is that the vaccine industry engaged in tobacco science a half-century before the tobacco industry. Even more remarkable was whom I learned about Dr. Albert Barnes from: my former professor Michael Willrich.
My trip back in time began with a trip to Philadelphia to see Professor Willrich give a talk as part of The History of Vaccines Project at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia – a historic-looking building that I originally mistook for a church. I walked into a large entry hall, up a grand staircase and through a massive pair of wooden double-doors into an ornate room full of oil canvasses of physicians from the past. I arrived just in time to catch Professor Willrich’s story about the Camden outbreak and the notorious Dr. Barnes who tried to cover it up. Yet Professor Willrich drew no correlations between the past and the present, noting all the supposed progress that had been made over the last century to ensure vaccine safety.
When he concluded his talk, the floor was opened up to questions.
As I walked up to the mike, Professor Willrich grinned, introducing me to the room, “I see my former student, Jake Crosby.”
“Hi Professor Willrich,” I said. “Congratulations on your faculty award.” (He had won an award for student mentoring the month before.)
I continued, “I heard you speak on NPR, and one thing I found very fascinating was your personal story, because…” And out it came, “…you have a vaccine-injured son.”
I continued that I heard him say on the show that his son developed intususseption – a potentially deadly gastrointestinal condition - from RotaShield, the first rotavirus vaccine that would eventually be pulled as a result of this danger. I filled him in on how Dr. Paul Offit was developing his own rotavirus vaccine at the same time he was sitting on the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices and voted “yes” three times in a row to add RotaShield to the recommended schedule. I added that the introduction of the first commercial vaccine against rotavirus, RotaShield would open up the rotavirus vaccine market, which would benefit every rotavirus vaccine that would come after it, including the one Dr. Offit co-invented, eventually making him a millionaire. I also noted that Dr. Offit was involved in the History of Vaccines Project (he sits on the editorial advisory board), which was sponsoring Professor Willrich’s lecture.
After describing Dr. Offit’s conflicted role in the approval of RotaShield to my former professor, I asked him if he had known about this before and what he made of all this.
He initially tried to skirt my question: “Anti-vaccinationists of today LOVE to make up conspiracy theories about…”
And I brought him back on track: “Oh no, there is no evidence of conspiracy here – simply that Paul Offit participated in a regulatory process he shouldn’t have because of his conflict of interest.”
Professor Willrich replied, “Well, I can’t speak for Paul Offit. I’ll talk to you afterwards so why not take a seat and let someone else ask a question?”
I was dumbfounded, “okay.”
As soon as I sat down, a white-haired man got up to the microphone and gruffly announced:
“Dr. Offit was one of the first to say that vaccine should be banned, in spite of how it has been portrayed here!” He went on, “The current rotavirus vaccine was tested on 70,000 children!”
After the Q/A session, I politely waited my turn until I was finally the last person to talk to Professor Willrich. I told him that even though the white-haired man in the audience claimed Dr. Offit wanted to pull the Rotavirus Vaccine, not once did he vote to have it removed – only to have it added. He abstained from voting over pulling the vaccine after it was found to have caused intussusception.
Professor Willrich got up from the desk where he was signing his book “Pox: An American History,” and looked all around the enormous room, saying, “I’m not looking away from you, I’m just looking for my briefcase.”
“It’s underneath the desk.”
After I repeated my question, “Did you know Paul Offit was involved in RotaShield’s approval?” he eventually answered.
“Nope,” he said while picking up his briefcase.
“Well, what’s your impression of this?” I asked.
“No impressions – will have to look into it,” he answered.
My own professor of history did not know that Paul Offit – with the largest conflict of anybody voting for the RotaShield vaccine’s inclusion in the vaccine schedule – was one of the people most responsible for Professor Willrich’s son’s vaccine injury. His son’s intestine telescoped onto itself as the result of receiving a vaccine against rotavirus – the primary symptom of rotavirus being a few days of diarrhea, which he could just as easily have gotten from eating too many prunes.
Professor Willrich seemed shocked to see me at the lecture.
“Are you from Philadelphia?” – he asked.
“Did you come all the way from Boston?”
I told him I was from outside New York, which is just two hours away.
He said he couldn’t believe I was the same person on the guest list, thinking I was still taking finals, which I told him I’d just completed. He congratulated me on my upcoming graduation and was off, “Good to see you,” he said before walking away.
I left the room, went back down the grand staircase and out into the open air of 21st century Philadelphia. In the neighboring suburb of Merion, the legacy of Dr. Barnes lives on not for his role as the original vaccine injury denier, or as the co-inventor of Argyrol, but for the massive collection of art he had accumulated with his fortune during the last thirty years of his life. Today, the collection ranks at a net worth of $25 billion and sits in a heavily guarded building known as the Barnes Foundation.
And what ever happened to H.K. Mulford, the vaccine manufacturer Albert Barnes consulted for? It was bought out in 1929 by Sharp and Dohme, which would eventually become Merck, Sharp and Dohme – known domestically as Merck - the company for which Paul Offit consulted and co-invented his vaccine.
Jake Crosby has Asperger Syndrome and is a contributing editor to Age of Autism. He is a 2011 graduate of Brandeis University with a BA in both History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. In August, he will attend The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services where he will study for an MPH in epidemiology.