June 19, 2023
A number of news articles have reported on the death last Thursday of Donald Triplett in Forest Mississippi. Triplett was the first individual with autism—Case 1--described in Leo Kanner’s landmark 1943 paper “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” Contrary to assertions made in the recent flurry of articles, he was not the oldest individual ever diagnosed with autism. That distinction belongs to Vivian Murdock, Case 6 in Kanner’s paper, who was born on August 29, 1931 (see Her Name Was Vivian The Age of Autism's First Born Child) ; Triplett, who was born on September 8, 1933, was two years younger than Vivian. Nor was he the first seen at Kanner’s clinic at John Hopkins, a distinction that belongs to David Speck, born on June 20, 1932, who was first seen at Hopkins in November 1935. But when Triplett’s parents, Beaman and Mary, brought Donald from Forest Mississippi to see Kanner at Hopkins in October 1938, he was undoubtedly the first person with autism Kanner had ever encountered; Donald clearly made a lasting impression.
Dan Olmsted was the first journalist to locate Kanner’s Case 1; he tracked Triplett down in 2005 in Forest Mississippi, but the recent coverage inappropriately gives that credit to John Donvan and Caren Zucker, who featured Triplett in their 2016 book, In a Different Key. Dan’s discovery came when he was working as an investigative journalist at United Press International (UPI) and Triplett became a centerpiece of our 2010 book The Age of Autism. For the sake of the record (and Dan’s legacy), I have excerpted the section below from our 2017 book Denial.
In 2005 we identified Donald T. as Donald Gray Triplett of Forest, Mississippi. The tipoff was a short paper by Leo Kanner from the 1970s. He referred to Donald as a bank teller in the small town of Forest, Mississippi—a classic case of too much information in this modern Internet age about a supposedly anonymous medical case study. Looking online for Donald T* in the white pages for Forest, we saw one name and one name only—Donald Triplett, phone and street address given.
A child as disabled as Donald T.—the index case of a striking new condition—now had a house and a listed phone number? We dialed it and got a recording of a perfectly pleasant-sounding older man. After cross checking other information about his family, we realized this had to be Case 1, Donald T.
After discussing how to approach this discovery, Dan got on a plane and flew to Jackson, then drove into the small town of Forest. We knew that Donald had an older brother, Oliver Beaman Triplett III—known as O.B. (their father went by Beaman). Like his father, O.B. had a law firm on the second floor of a building on the town square. Dan walked in, identified himself, and proceeded to have a conversation we have recounted elsewhere—about how Donald had been severely autistic, but then, in early adolescence, developed a near-fatal case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The treatment—injected gold salts given over a period of months at the famed Campbell Clinic in Memphis—cleared up not just the arthritis but the most severe autism symptoms, allowing Donald to go to college, work at the family’s Bank of Forest, and now in retirement travel worldwide. In fact, he was out of town during Dan’s visit.
“It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” O.B. told us, attributing the improvement to the gold salts regimen. Dan asked him more than once if the treatment, rather the time he had spent with a kindly farm family when he was taken ill, had made the difference. "It sure did," O.B. said. "He became more social.…He just had a miraculous response to the medicine. The pain in his joints went away." Donald has one fused knuckle to show for the nearly fatal affliction.
There was more good news.
"When he was finally released, the nervous condition he was formerly afflicted with was gone," his brother said. "The proclivity to excitability and extreme nervousness had all but cleared up, and after that he went to school and had one more little flare-up (of arthritis) when in junior college.”
Then a correspondent for United Press International, Dan wrote up the discovery. The article appeared on August 15, 2005: “The Age of Autism: Case 1 Revisited,” read the headline. “The first person ever diagnosed with autism lived in a small town in Mississippi,” the article began. “He still does.”
We weren’t the only ones to comment on Donald’s improvement after his gold salts therapy. John Hopkins has kept in touch with the Tripletts for years, and in 1956, Leon Eisenberg, Kanner’s colleague at Hopkins wrote, “On the basis of a tentative diagnosis of Still’s disease [JRA], he was placed empirically on gold therapy with marked improvement....The clinical improvement in his behavior…was accelerated during and after his illness and convalescence at home.”
Dan’s article continued: “Donald T is now 71, and after a ‘miraculous response’ to medical treatment at age 12, he appears to have recovered significantly since his original diagnosis as a 5-year-old.”
Dan didn’t name him. A few years later, we both visited him in Forest for an in-depth interview that we published in our book, The Age of Autism. This time we did name him, using our recorded interview verbatim in our book, whose publication date was September 15, 2010.
There are obvious reasons why Dan’s priority is disregarded in favor of Donvan and Zucker. For one, the propagandistic narrative that pervades their 2016 book, subtitled “The Story of Autism,” takes pains to minimize the relevance of connections between the sharp increases in autism prevalence and exposures to environmental factors, most notably vaccines. Incredibly to us, they argued that “it shouldn’t matter whether there’s an epidemic or not.” In addition, Triplett’s near miraculous recovery has been misused to minimize the seriousness of the disability Kanner diagnosed and that now affects 1 in 36 American children. Instead of noting his remarkable progress, the coverage focuses on the idea that Triplett’s life should “give.. people who have children on different levels of the spectrum hope that their children can live happy and full lives.”
Donald Triplett did live a long and productive life. I met him when Dan and I visited Forest in July 2009; although he clearly showed autistic traits, he had clearly recovered well from his early disability and was a lovely and charming man who had lived a full and independent life.
But Dan and I both felt strongly that the message of his life shouldn’t be the treacly blather that Donvan and Zucker traffic in. Instead, we believed there were far more critical questions about his life experience, the answers to which might provide useful lessons:
- What risk factors did he share with Kanner’s other 10 cases, all of them born in the 1930s?
- Could his physical proximity to lumber operations using ethlymercury-based fungicides have played a causal role in his autism?
- Was his diagnosed autoimmune condition, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, connected in any way to the brain dysfunction underlying his autism?
- How did the treatment with gold salts lead to his recovery and his capacity to live a productive, independent life?
To the extent that Donald Triplett’s life story can shed light on these questions, he can give more to the autism community than just hope. He can give us answers.
Mark Blaxill is co-founder and Editor-At-Large for Age of Autism.
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