By Mark Blaxill
Dan Olmsted’s “Weekly Wrap,” his regular Saturday column, was one of my favorite weekend pleasures. Dan’s death last weekend makes his January 21st version his last. So in his honor, I spent much of this week connecting with a few folks who knew him well in order to write a tribute to him in this space. A final wrap.
Dan was born and raised in Danville Illinois, started his career there and maintained close ties to friends and family in the region. His sister Sallie died last year but his other sister Rosie still lives in Wilmette. She has long been a fierce supporter of Dan’s work. Rosie knew from an early age that Dan was a uniquely brilliant and talented journalist. She was a great advocate for the books we wrote together and especially pleased—Dan told me-- that in The Age of Autism, I insisted that we put Dan’s name first on the marquee! (Dan and I actually competed to be the second author and eventually decided to take turns).
Dan was a journalist from very early in life. While in high school he wrote a column, High Times (the “high” stands for high school, nothing illegal!), for Danville’s local newspaper The Commercial News. His talent was apparent early.
“Dan and I were classmates at Danville High School,” wrote Bina Connelly on the comments section underneath his obituary. “Even then, we knew he would leave a mark, make a difference. He was kind, thoughtful, intelligent, passionate. I am humbled to have known him.” Dan’s friend of 40 years, Melissa Merli, tells me he is still in touch with his high school English teacher, who plans to attend his memorial service.
A career in journalism was on Dan’s radar from the very beginning. An English degree at Yale (class of 1974) separated his stints at The Commercial News, a Gannett paper. From there he went to The Democrat and Chronicle, Gannett’s flagship paper in Rochester, New York. On the Gannett fast track, Dan went on to be a founding editor of USA Today in 1982 and its 1984 spinoff, USA Weekend, where he worked for 15 years. Following a brief and abortive stint at an internet start-up in 1999, Dan moved over to United Press International in 2000. Laid off in 2007 after a series of cutbacks at UPI, he moved on to launch the Age of Autism, “the daily web newspaper of the autism epidemic.”
In speaking with Dan’s colleagues during that 40-plus year journey, I’ve heard an amazing and consistent portrait of a man who was, as his longtime partner and husband Mark Millett puts it, “always passionate about journalism and his work.” Melissa Merli was a colleague in the 1970s at The Commercial News and remembers that Dan was widely liked and respected. “Everyone adored him at The Commercial News.” That adoration extended to a number of the female reporters there, including Melissa. “I had a crush on him,” confided Melissa, “and at one point, Dan took me aside and told me he was gay, but that we could still be good friends!” They’ve been close and constant friends ever since.
Melissa described Dan as a gifted investigative reporter from the outset. One investigation stood out: an exposé of corruption in the local police force, where a gang of police officers were running a drug store burglary operation. A grand jury was convened; Dan was sued for libel and won. Melissa later heard from a local official that “there’s one reporter there that everyone’s afraid of and that’s Dan Olmsted.”
Melissa describes a man that many came to know and love. “Dan had a finely tuned sense of justice and compassion for others. He’s one of the most honest people I know. I can honestly say that I have no negative memories of Dan. He was one of a kind.”
We can all thank the dot.com crash for reawakening Dan’s passion for investigative journalism. While at USA Today and USA Weekend, he focused on lighter fare. But after landing at the once proud UPI wire service --then owned by the Unification Church (aka “the Moonies”), a step down in prestige led to a step up in freedom and investigative autonomy. Dan teamed up there with a young reporter named Mark Benjamin and together they embarked on a project that hit the big time: an investigation of the negative side effects of an anti-malaria drug called mefloquine. Or, as it was marketed by Roche Pharmaceuticals, Lariam.
“The Lariam project was investigative reporting at its most pure,” Mark told me. “It was a case of Dan deciding that we were going to take really damaging, but solid information on a bad drug and go up against one of the most powerful and deep-pocketed companies in the world, Roche. And it was one that had the Army and the CDC, quite literally, in its pocket.”
Lariam was widely used at the time in the Army and the Peace Corp and although effective at preventing malaria, in a subset of recipients it was associated with cases of hallucinations, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, psychoses and even homicide. According to an August 11, 2016 article in Military Times. “Mefloquine was implicated in a series of murder-suicides at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2002, and media reports also tied it to an uptick in military suicides in 2003.”
Dan and Mark were faced with sharp initial resistance, but their work eventually had a huge impact. According to Military Times, “Once the U.S. military's malaria prophylactic of choice, favored for its once-a-week dosage regimen, mefloquine was designated the drug of last resort in 2013 by the Defense Department after the Food and Drug Administration slapped a boxed warning on its label, noting it can cause permanent psychiatric and neurological side effects.” Prescriptions plummeted from 50,000 in 2003 to only 216 in 2015. That’s not low enough for some. Dr. Remington Nevin, another friend of Dan, argued that any distribution of Lariam is too much. “This new finding should motivate the U.S. military to consider further revising its mefloquine policy to ban use of the drug altogether.”
Their work had many positive and unexpected ripple effects. Mark and Dan were turned into a composite character, Sherm Hempell, on a Law and Order: SVU episode, which told a story of violence and murder in two Afghanistan war veterans that had taken an anti-malarial drug, Quinium. Happily, the good guys won and the Army cover-up was exposed. More notably, in a real life case that wasn’t “ripped from the headlines” Dan and Mark quite literally saved the life of the first soldier since the Vietnam War charged with cowardice, an offense that carries the death penalty. The Army soldier, Andrew Pogany, was put on trial but ultimately the Army dropped the case when it became clear that his “cowardice” was simply an adverse reaction to Lariam. Mark joked that Dan wrote one of the best headlines ever for their article, “Army Surrenders to Coward Soldier.”
“I’ve never seen anyone else like Dan Olmsted in our business, before or since,” Mark claimed. “You can hold him up against any of the all-time great investigative journalists and he deserves a place right alongside them. What made him so good? There were so many things. He was just smarter than anyone else. He worked harder and once he knew he was right, he just never gave up. He would just never stop.”
It was their glimpse into the inner workings of the CDC and its preferred programs that brought the UPI investigative pair to the vaccine issue, and in Dan’s case, into the Age of Autism. In the summer of 2003, Mark pursued (and Dan edited) a story about conflicts of interest in the CDC’s recommended vaccine program, with a special focus on a little known vaccine inventor, Dr. Paul Offit, and the conflict between his role on the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and his commercial relationship with Merck, which made his rotavirus vaccine. It’s a story AoA readers know well!
Mark Benjamin is the man that brought Dan Olmsted and me together. The two Marks (who when added to Dan’s partner Mark Millett explain Dan’s dedication in The Age of Autism, “to Mark, Mark and Mark, in that order”) had been discussing the issues swirling around autism and vaccines. Mark Benjamin wanted Dan to meet me and he arranged a dinner between the three of us in Washington DC on October 7, 2003. That began a collaboration that would last for over 13 years.
As Mark Benjamin turned to issues with the military and the health of veterans, Dan turned his attention to autism. He and I began to have frequent conversations and email exchanges. In 2004, Dan had decided he wanted to launch an extended, deep dive. And he wanted to find a way into the issue that was unique. By year end, Dan and I were just beginning to share thoughts on the issues we would turn into a book 6 years later. Dan, as he so often did, was trying to find the critical question, one that could spark an investigation. On December 7, he prefaced an email list of questions this way: “I made a list of some odd ways in (some of which I have seen referred to elsewhere but not conclusively) if you have any thoughts…” The very first question was right on the mark: “Is there anywhere they don’t use vaccines and don’t have autism? Or any group, like Christian scientists?”
I wrote (as is my tendency) a lengthy answer. “We have long discussed the idea of using low and zero exposure groups, religious groups (Amish or others), anthroposophic schools, etc. to test the theory. Since autism surveillance stats are not routinely collected, this would require a specific study, one that has never been done (and epi studies are expensive).”
And so it began. Dan didn’t bother to wait for a bureaucratic funding process. He decided to cut to the chase and do the “study” himself. He drove from his home in Falls Church Virginia to Lancaster County Pennsylvania, and started asking real people about autism in the Amish. A bare four months later he launched his UPI Age of Autism series with his first article, The Amish Anomaly. As many of us know by now, Dan found very few autistic children there and all of these were in the relatively small subset of vaccinated Amish.
Starting with the Amish Anomaly, on April 19, 2005, Dan added dozens of articles to the series. He stopped writing only when he was laid off at UPI, ending on July 18, 2007 with “The Last Word.” Along the way, he found the first of Leo Kanner’s case series, Donald T., the first of eight eventual discoveries and the heart of our book, The Age of Autism. Following his departure from UPI, Dan and I reached out to JB Handley and Kim Stagliano who had started their own blog, Rescue Post. Our joint venture went on line just a few months later.
From the very beginning, Dan stayed close to the families and individuals affected by autism. Dan started out talking to doctors on the front line of the epidemic, free thinkers like the late Meyer Eisenstein and Elizabeth Mumper. In fact, the third column in the UPI series “Sick Children” took Dan’s readers to Liz Mumper’s pediatric practice in nearby Lynchburg Virginia. Dan wrote “Dr. Elizabeth Mumper is an unlikely contrarian. Mumper is a pediatrician in the southern Virginia city of Lynchburg. About a decade ago, Mumper said, she began noticing a change for the worse in the overall health of the children she was seeing, including a startling rise in cases of autism. Ultimately, Mumper came to suspect the increasing number of childhood vaccinations in the 1990s -- and particularly the mercury-based preservative called thimerosal in many of those vaccines -- was a big reason.”
Liz was a great source for Dan and me in our second book, Vaccines 2.0. When I reached out to her yesterday to get her reflections on Dan, she described those initial meetings. “Dan came to my office in 2005. I was in the midst of running a practice in which many of the children had chronic illness and neurodevelopmental disorders. .Dan had such an inquisitive mind and asked such great questions. I was surprised that a reporter who had not gone to medical school would understand and be able to synthesize complex medical information the way he could.”
Like many of us, Liz remarked on Dan’s tenacity and gift for words. “What a gift to passionately seek answers to the unprecedented tsunami of childhood chronic illness! He wove the stories of children, families, medical institutions, government organizations and pharmaceutical industries into compelling prose.”
Dan’s subsequent career-- 10 years here at the “daily web newspaper of the autism epidemic” (he truly loved real printed newspapers!), two published books and a third on the way—is all available here at Age of Autism. Under Kim Stagliano’s leadership and with the help of our amazing group of contributing editors we are continuing the noble project Dan started. But we do so with a heavy heart. I heard the news about Dan from his sister Rosie, driving from Boston to Manhattan this Monday afternoon. When I got to the city I sat down for dinner and wept. I didn’t know quite what to do, so I typed out this FaceBook post, as tears smudged my iPhone .
To everyone who is sharing love for my great friend Dan Olmsted, please keep it up. Dan deserved so much and I hope will ultimately get the recognition he deserves. Dan was the consummate journalist. He had so much to teach us all about the ethics and discipline of how good reporters should respond to and treat evidence. But he was more than that. He was a deeply original and creative investigator. That combination was unique and compelling. Dan was brilliant and compassionate and persistent and uncompromising and balanced and impatient. All at once. And man! could he put words together in such a graceful and powerful way.
I was so fortunate to be his fellow traveler on the Age of Autism (his phrase and it was so powerful) journey. I will really miss him. I wish I had the words to say it as artfully as he could. I love you man. We'll all miss you. But you kicked some ass.
Later this week, I took my two daughters to dinner in Cambridge. Dan got to know both of them quite well in our years working together. My oldest, Sydney, traveled to Vienna with us as we researched the medical history of mercuric chloride treatments for syphilis and hysteria. My youngest, Michaela (now 21 years old and diagnosed with autistic disorder), spent a lot of time with Dan in recent months; he came to Cambridge a lot as we wrote our third book, Denial. Sydney knew the news already, but when I picked them up we told Michaela about Dan’s death. She often has difficulty processing emotions, especially sadness, in an appropriate way. But when I told her, “I have sad news, honey. Dan is dead,” I was pleased to see she was genuinely affected in the way Sydney and I were feeling. “Dan is dead,” she repeated to herself in a subdued tone. Trying, in her way, to process the news. She had grown up with Dan and knew how close our friendship was.
Later in the evening, as we were walking into dinner at Legal Seafoods, she asked me an amusingly autistic but poignant question. “Dad,” she asked, “are you going to get a replacement for Dan?”
“No, honey. There will never be a replacement for Dan.”
Mark Blaxill is Editor at Large for Age of Autism.