Last week I drove from Washington to Philadelphia, where Mark Blaxill and I spoke to a TACA chapter in Newtown Square. It was a great evening and dinner afterward. We talked about our new book, Vaccines 2.0, and as is so often the case, heard disturbing accounts from smart, honest parents about their child’s illness and autistic regression after vaccination. The visit redoubled my hope that people take vaccine injury seriously – and take the vaccine schedule into their own hands rather than relying on the CDC, which Bobby Kennedy Jr. correctly calls a “cesspool of corruption.”
On the drive over, I realized I was traveling through a virtual time warp of the long history of delay and denial when it comes to vaccine safety. If you want to relive the whole awful story of ethyl mercury poisoning in medicine and manufacturing – emblematic of the careless approach to our safety by both institutions -- just drive from DC to Philly.
My Waze app took me up 16th Street, which intersects with the White House – hence the address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The current and previous occupant both promised to get thimerosal – organic ethyl mercury, a terrible toxin – out of vaccines. Neither has delivered, and millions of doses of the worthless flu shot – some given to infants and pregnant women – still contain it.
On the Beltway, there’s a sign for College Park and the University of Maryland. This is where, in the early 1920s, a brilliant organic chemist named Morris Kharasch performed the key research that led to the development of thimerosal. By then he had moved to the University of Chicago and worked on the patent and process with Eli Lilly Co.
The other early commercial use for ethyl mercury was in pesticides – as a seed disinfectant and a lumber preservative. And as I neared I-95, that part of the story was just coming into view.
In the distance, I could see the tall brick fortress of the National Agricultural Library, which is adjacent to the Beltsville Area Research Center of the Department of Agriculture. In the 1930s, a plant pathologist at BARC named Frederick Wellman was experimenting with the seed disinfectant Ceresan – made with ethyl mercury-- at the same time his son was born. That child, Frederick L. Wellman III, became Case 2 in the landmark article “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.”
Leo Kanner, who wrote that first account of autism, was a child psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore – which appeared a half an hour later on my left. Here’s where the Wellmans and 10 other families came to see if Kanner could figure out their kids. In 1943, Kanner published his paper saying those children differed “markedly and uniquely” from anything described before.
Yes, they did, because those newly commercialized ethyl mercury compounds caused this newly observed disorder. Like Wellman, several other families were local, including:
-- Vivian Murdock, whose father was the superintendent of a mental hospital in Baltimore.
-- John Trevett, whose mother went to medical school at Hopkins and became a public health pediatrician – advocating for the new diphtheria vaccine, which contained thimerosal. (John Trevett still lives in a group home in rural Maryland. As I like to say, autism is recent.)
-- Bridget Muncie, daughter of Wendell Muncie, another Hopkins psychiatrist who doubtless knew Kanner and brought Bridget to see him.
Bridget’s brother, Peter, lives nearby in Columbia, Maryland. I thought of him and Bridget as I drove on past Baltimore into Harford County, where the family had a farm.
Mark and I had visited Peter for our book, The Age of Autism. He wrote us a beautifully bittersweet recollection of Bridget, recalling family visits with her at the state hospital. “I would see Bridget a couple of times yearly when she was at Springfield—it was a not-too-distant drive from our farm in Harford County—on her birthday and at Christmas. I vividly remember the drives back home in the wintry darkness, my mother weeping continuously, my father silent at the wheel of the car, and me scared and still in the backseat.
“I really got to know Bridget well only after my father died in 1984. … These days, I visit Bridget once a year—at our family burial plot in Harford County. There, I commiserate with her about the shitty hand she was dealt at the time of her birth.”
So much for the cheerful bromides of Autism Awareness Month!
Soon enough I was sailing past Wilmington, with DuPont’s vast chemical plant off to my right. DuPont, in partnership with Germany’s Bayer, manufactured Ceresan, the seed disinfectant Frederick Wellman was experimenting with when his son was born.
And then came Philly, where people like Paul Offit say none of this means anything, and places like CHOP push mandatory flu shots like dentists used to pass out lollipops.
Driving home meant going through all over again in reverse For a moment, I though about doing it with my eyes closed, like everybody else in the medical and media establishment.
But I didn’t.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism.