Thursday, February 11, 2010

OPINION: Lynch 'em Then Love 'em: Dr. Wakefield and His Forebears

". . . my son sprinted ahead of me on the Katy Trail, veered off onto Routh Street, and disappeared into uptown Dallas."
Two weeks ago, Dan Burns' 22-year-old autistic son, Ben, lay on the couch with a blanket wrapped around his head and his fingers in his ears, catatonic, not eating.

In this guest column, Dan, author of Saving Ben: A Father's Story of Autism, talks about Dr. Andrew Wakefield and the help he sought from Thoughtful House:

"Desperate for help, we took Ben to Thoughtful House, where Dr. Andrew Wakefield leads the research program. Dr. Jepson, author of Changing the Course of Autism, prescribed a protocol to heal Ben’s gut. The results were astonishing.

"On Tuesday, a week after starting treatment, my son sprinted ahead of me on the Katy Trail, veered off onto Routh Street, and disappeared into uptown Dallas. Squad cars, helicopter, sirens, fear. His mother and I waited in the parking lot for the call from the police, the hospital or the morgue.

"An hour and a half later, Ben came loping back down the Katy trail, thirsty, exhausted, and brimming with pride. For the first time in his adult life Ben was, briefly, on his own. And he had survived.

"Though I would have preferred less dramatic evidence, Ben’s temporary escape from autism supports the Thoughtful House protocol and, indirectly, Dr. Wakefield’s research.

"We often lynch our heroes before we saint them, and the lynching of Andrew Wakefield has reached a new level of frenzy. Yesterday I received an email from a writer doing a health care piece for a Canadian periodical. The writer was greatly pleased by the publisher’s withdrawal of Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet article, “Ileal lymphoid-modular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children,” and was outraged by people who still believe that there is a vaccine/gut/autism connection. He wanted a quote from me that he could use to thrash the ignorant parents who have supported Wakefield and his research these dozen years. “What can be done,” he asked, “to push back sooner against this quackery?”

"Dr. Wakefield is in good company. He is the latest in a line of alleged quacks whose questions and tentative answers outraged the medical and political establishment and who were shamed, fired, and censured before being honored, too often posthumously. For example:

"1. Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis. In 1847, cut the death rate from “childbed fever” at Vienna General Hospital’s maternity ward from 30% to 1% by requiring doctors who had performed postmortem examinations to wash their hands in a chlorine solution before assisting with childbirth. Germ theory had not yet been proposed; prevailing medical opinion held that childbed fever was caused either by “bad air” or by an imbalance of humors, to be remedied by bloodletting. Semmelweis had other ideas, and his practices offended the medical establishment. He was dismissed from the hospital, hand washing stopped, and women resumed expiring by the hundreds. Semmelweis toured Europe expounding his ideas, which were widely ridiculed. He was lured to an insane asylum in Lazarettgasse, secured in a straitjacket, severely beaten, and confined to a darkened cell, where he died. Today his portrait is on the 50 Euro gold coin.

"2. Dr. John Snow. Ended the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, which killed 615 people, by removing the handle of the Broad Street Pump, located on a cistern three feet from a cesspit which had been used to dispose of a dirty diaper. His theory connecting the quality of water with cholera cases offended the Southward and Vauxhall Waterworks companies, which supplied homes with water from sewage-polluted sections of the Thames. Under pressure, government officials rejected Snow's theory of oral-fecal disease transmission. “After careful inquiry,” the Board of Health report concluded, “we see no reason to adopt this belief.” The pump handle was replaced, and government refused to drain the cesspool. Snow died unrecognized, having drunk only boiled water throughout his adult life. In 2003, he was voted in a poll of British doctors as “the greatest physician of all time.”

"Because they fear him, the powers that be have decided to crush Wakefield. It is not the man but the truth that they should fear. “What lessons,” the Wakefield-despising Canadian writer asked, “can we take away from the persistence of this idea?” I wanted to fire back at the writer and tell him what a shallow, lazy, arse-licking excuse for a journalist he was. But on reflection, I think it’s an excellent question. It brings to mind another lynching. That of Medgar Evers, a black civil rights activist who on June 12, 1963, emerged from his car in the driveway of his Jackson, Mississippi, home carrying a stack of NAACP T-shirts that read “Jim Crow Must Go.” Evers was struck in the back with a bullet from an Enfield 1917 .303 rifle, staggered 30 feet, and died at a local hospital just after John F. Kennedy’s nationally
televised speech on civil rights. But not before saying, as the legend goes, “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” Let’s roll."

Ben Burns on the Katy Trail.

Dan E. Burns, Ph.D, is Adult Issues Liaison for AutismOne, where he is a regular columnist. He is the author of Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism, published by University of North Texas Press, a member of the TAMU Press Consortium.


  1. Incredible that a university press would publish such rubbish. Comparing Wakefield to Semmelweiss and Snow is like comparing Sarah Palin to Jefferson and Lincoln.

    There's no there, there.

  2. With Autism 1 in a 100 now, how much longer will they be denying the connection between 36 vaccines under the age of two and the onset of Autism. One day Dr. Wakefield will be recompensated, he is a noble man with a mission. He has the evidence but the evidence is not admissive because of the way it was obtained, just like in a crime scene.