By Teresa Conrick, Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
We found her.
Eight years after setting out to identify the 11 children in the first medical report of autism, we have found “Virginia S.”, the eldest child in that landmark paper -- and thus the first-born child of the Age of Autism.
Her real name: Vivian Ann Murdock. Born in 1931, Vivian was placed in a Maryland institution at age 6 and died in a state-run home in 1987, age 56. She was the daughter of a prominent Baltimore psychiatrist, Harry M. Murdock, and his wife, Margaret.
The Rosewood State Training School, Owings Mills, MD Stuart Dahne Photography
The key to finding her real name was the recent online publication of the 1940 U.S. Census – allowing one of us (Teresa) to test her hunch about the institution to which"Virginia" had been committed as a child: The Rosewood School in Owings Mills. The hunch was correct; the Census listed an "Inmate" there named Vivian Murdock, age 8 in 1940, who we conclusively identified as "Virginia S."
In Dan and Mark's The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, published in 2010, we described the seven children we'd identified to that point, and wrote of “Virginia”: “We continue to search for this eldest child of the Age of Autism and whatever clues her identity may hold.”
Now, having spoken with family members, and pored over countless records and archives, we believe her identity does offer important clues, ones remarkably consistent with the other cases in that first report -- exposure to new mercury compounds in their families.
Vivian was directly in the path of at least three mercury vectors:
-- the first use of mercury-preserved vaccines in Baltimore -- a drive to vaccinate every infant with those shots began the month she was born;
-- her parents' avocation of orchid growing and breeding, which required intensive application of chemicals including mercury;
-- and her father’s psychiatric career, which brought him – and probably his family through second-hand exposure – in contact with mercury treatments for a common form of insanity.
Mercury is no longer used in agriculture or mental health treatment. But each year, 100 million children worldwide get vaccines containing thimerosal, the ethylmercury preservative first used in those shots in Baltimore. In the United States, flu shots, most of which contain mercury, are recommended for pregnant women and for infants beginning at 6 months of age.
Our research on Vivian and the other first cases of autism suggests that is a very bad idea.
Vivian’s identity also offers insight into how the damaging idea of “refrigerator parents” – supposedly cold and neglectful mothers and fathers responsible for causing their children's disorder -- got its start. We will explain these clues and conclusions in detail, but first the basics about the discovery of Vivian Murdock.
Seventy years ago this month, in April 1943, a psychiatry journal called The Nervous Child published an article titled “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” Written by Leo Kanner, a Johns Hopkins child psychiatrist who is widely considered the founder of the field, it begins:
“SINCE 1938, there have come to our attention a number of children whose condition differs so markedly and uniquely from anything reported so far, that each case merits -- and, I hope, will eventually receive -- a detailed consideration of its fascinating peculiarities.” Elsewhere, he called it "a behavior pattern not known to me or anyone else theretofore."
The three of us have always found those words remarkable, coming as they did from an acknowledged authority who eight years earlier had catalogued every known childhood mental disability in his landmark 500-page book “Child Psychiatry.” Those pages contained not a whisper of autism, or anything that in retrospect looks similar.
Our own research convinced us the autism rate before 1930 was effectively zero (it is now 1 in 50). A handful of cases over several centuries might conceivably qualify, but there was nothing approaching the cluster of children whose worried parents brought them to see Leo Kanner in the years between 1938 and 1943.
Curious whether the family backgrounds of those first 11 cases might point to common environmental exposures, we began trying to identify them in 2005. The eight boys and three girls were described in the paper only by a first name and last initial. But because Kanner gave birth years for each child, we knew that “Virginia S.” was the oldest; her birthday was listed as September 13, 1931. Even as the number of autistic children seen by Kanner rose in later years, none appears to have been born earlier. (In a 1955 update, Kanner revisited his first 42 cases. The oldest autistic person at that point was 24 -- born in 1931 and presumably Virginia S.)
We began our hunt with Kanner’s original 1943 "Autistic Disturbances" report and a follow-up paper he wrote in 1971. (In the latter paper, he slipped once and referred to “Virginia S.” by what we now know is her real first name, Vivian.) In “Autistic Disturbances,” he quoted a psychologist noting that Virginia “could respond to sounds, the calling of her name, and the command, ‘Look!’
“She pays no attention to what is said to her,” the psychologist said, “but quickly comprehends whatever is expected. Her performance reflects discrimination, care, and precision. … She is quiet, solemn, composed. Not once have I seen her smile. She retires within herself, segregating herself from others. She seems to be in a world of her own …”