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Dr. Mary's Monkey
How the Unsolved Murder of a Doctor, a Secret Laboratory in New Orleans and Cancer-Causing Monkey Viruses are Linked to Lee Harvey Oswald, the JFK Assassination and Emerging Global Epidemics
By Edward T. Haslam
Trine Day LLC Copyright © 2014 Edward T. Haslam
All rights reserved.
In the spring of 1962 I was a child of ten years. Those innocent, sun-filled days were spent swimming and sailing on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.
This particular day, my father and I had been sailing on his boat, the Interlude, a modest double-ended wooden sloop whose leaky hull showed its age. The Interlude was a noticeable step down the status ladder from the larger, newer, more glamorous boats which flanked it on the pier. Boats tend to be metaphors of their owners, and this was no exception. It was an unpretentious boat for an unpretentious man.
My father was dressed in his habitual sailing clothes, baggy khaki pants, a blue cotton shirt, and a dark blue baseball cap that covered his short-cropped head of completely grey hair. This attire was as close as he could get to his old Navy uniform, and he wore it whenever he sailed. With his omnipresent cigarette in hand, he shuffled down the concrete pier in a casual gait with me at his side. This quiet man honored simplicity and enjoyed the peace that followed a long, terrible war.
This rumpled façade concealed a complex and accomplished man who had witnessed more than his share of human suffering. The son of a country doctor, he graduated from Harvard Medical School in the late 1930s and then served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, during World War II. By the end of the war, he was planning medical support for an invasion of Japan, where they anticipated one million American casualties. In 1946-47, he was stationed (with his wife and infant daughter) in the smoldering Philippines. Upon returning to the states, he left the Navy and specialized in orthopedic surgery. After several moves, he settled in New Orleans in 1952. Now he made his living teaching at Tulane Medical School, performing surgery, and working with crippled children. He sailed to relax.
As we walked, we approached a section of the pier referred to as the Visitor's Dock, where sailors from around the world occasionally stopped on their travels. Since New Orleans was the northern port of the Gulf of Mexico, salty boats and weathered crews frequently came straight from the Caribbean and Central America. Some of these boats were remarkably picturesque, more reminiscent of ships from "the great age of sail" than the sleek modern designs which populated yacht club harbors. This day, an exceptionally nautical-looking boat had slipped into the Visitor's Dock while we were out sailing.
"Look, Dad! It's a pirate ship," I said with great excitement. The boat was a gaff -rigged schooner about fifty feet long with a carved wooden figurehead on the bow. A live parrot was perched on a cross beam in the rigging. Freshly-washed clothes were hung out to dry.
"And there's the pirate," I whispered, letting my wide eyes announce the importance of the news. Coming down the pier towards us was the boat's skipper, a bare-chested barefoot gypsy, looking every bit like the Ancient Mariner himself. Never before had I seen such a character in person. His leathery skin held a deep brown tan set off sharply by his tattered sun-bleached pants cut below the knee. Long curls of grey hair haphazardly fell from under the bandanna tied around his head. On his shoulder sat a small, mischievous monkey about twelve inches tall, tethered on a leash. As we passed, the pirate smiled at us; his eyes sparkled. The monkey studied us with his small round head and big brown eyes. Despite my intrigue, I gave them a wide berth and tried not to stare, but it was difficult. My thoughts were now focused on the monkey.
I had seen plenty of monkeys before, mostly in the zoo, but I had never thought about having a monkey as a pet. We had a dog. Why not a monkey? It would be much more interesting. So I asked my father, "Dad, can I get a monkey for a pet?"
"No," was his immediate answer. After a pause, he anticipated my next question by adding, "They carry diseases."
I had heard my mother mention that monkeys occasionally carried rabies. I reasoned to myself for a moment: Dogs could carry rabies, but we had a dog. A vet could tell you if your dog carried rabies, so a vet should be able to tell you if your monkey carried rabies. And nothing (to my ten-year-old mind) could possibly be worse than rabies! I decided to give the monkey pet idea a second try. "Like rabies?" I countered.
"Yes," he answered in a fat tone. "They can carry rabies, but they carry a lot of other diseases, too. Some are weird viruses that we don't understand yet. Some of them can kill you."
I was puzzled by his comment. I wondered how my father, an orthopedic surgeon whom the children in my family jokingly referred to as "old sawbones," knew about weird monkey viruses which were still being researched at the leading edge of medical science. So I asked him, "Where did you learn about that?" He paused to take a long drag off his cigarette and seemed to be thinking about the question. In the interim I decided to speculate: "Did you learn about that in the Philippines?"
"No," he said, blowing out his cigarette smoke in a short breath. "I don't suppose there's any harm in telling my ten-year-old son," as if talking to a cloud. Then he turned to me and said, "They're researching monkey viruses down at the med school. Some of the more deadly ones are coming in from Africa."
Africa?!!! I may have been ten years old, but I did not need Joseph Conrad to tell me that Africa was mysterious. From what I had seen in school and on television, Africa was a wild, poverty-stricken continent riddled with starvation and horrifying diseases. It was also full of bizarre forms of life which defied your imagination, like ants the size of your foot and snakes as long as your car. I was not interested in catching any weird fatal virus from Africa, no matter how cute the monkey. I wondered if the pirate knew the danger he was in.
The fact that these diseases obviously concerned my father more than rabies made a huge impression upon me. His comments ended my desire for a pet monkey, but they were the beginning of my curiosity about the monkey virus research being conducted in New Orleans. My first real question arose from my dad's cautiousness: Why were Tulane's doctors not supposed to talk about the monkey virus research program?
Several days after the pirate incident we had a substitute teacher at school. In the middle of the day she turned her attention to science and started talking about germs and diseases. She reviewed the basics about how germs caused diseases and how our bodies fought back. She went on to explain the differences among bacteria, fungi, and viruses. As her lecture continued, she confidently explained how modern medicine had triumphed over bacteria and fungi with medicines and antibiotics. Then she moved the discussion to the frontier of medicine, where researchers were battling the mysterious world of viruses.
I raised my hand to make a contribution to the discussion: They were researching viruses down at Tulane Medical School. (I knew the monkey subject was taboo, so I did not mention it.) "No," she said immediately, and turning toward the entire class, she said, "That's wrong," in a definitive voice. "Tulane is just a college and its purpose is to teach students, not to do research. Virus research," she continued, "is a very complex subject and is only done by very intelligent specialists at faraway places like Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities and at special government research centers which have special equipment."
I was embarrassed by her response, but there was nothing I could do about it. I knew she was both right and wrong. Tulane's faculty was full of people from Harvard and Hopkins. My father was one of them. Many of them were doing research. For over 100 years the reputation of Tulane had been based on battling tropical diseases like yellow fever and malaria.
It was true that the names Harvard and Johns Hopkins were in the news more often than Tulane, each time announcing some medical breakthrough or at least updating the public on their progress in fighting some dreaded disease. Other than announcing its pathetic football scores, Tulane's name hardly ever appeared in the local press. Public news about Tulane Medical School was basically non-existent in the 1960s. The teacher had stated the public's perception accurately enough. More importantly, I knew that nothing I could say would change her mind. More than likely she just could not grasp that idea that something "local" might be important. Beaten for the moment, I held my tongue.
The next time I had a chance to talk to my father I asked him why it was that we always heard on the news about the medical research being done at faraway places like Harvard and Johns Hopkins, but we never heard about the research being conducted at Tulane.
"Not everybody wants publicity," he patiently explained. "Yes, some people do research because they want to be famous and tell the world how great they are; but other people are not interested in publicity, and they do research to get information and knowledge. It's just part of being involved in academic medicine."
While I understood that he was trying to communicate the nobility of quiet scholarship, his answer did not make sense to me. Such an explanation might explain the bragging of an upstart school, but it did not explain why we heard about research from first-class schools like Harvard and Hopkins, but not Tulane. I thought about his comment for a minute and asked, "What sort of people wouldn't want the public to know about their research?"
He hid his exasperation with my relentless questioning in his quiet bedside manner, and said that much of the research at Tulane was financed by money from drug companies and from the U.S. government. These grants were frequently for experiments with drugs that were not yet ready for the public. Therefore, there was no reason to tell the public about them.
That still did not answer the question to my satisfaction. Sooner or later those drugs would be ready, but somehow I knew we still would not hear about them. The not-ready-yet argument was as true for Harvard and Hopkins as for Tulane. But I did understand his main points clearly. First, Tulane did not have enough money to fund its own research and was dependent upon others, like drug companies and the U.S. government, who consequently dictated what was to be researched and what was to be talked about. And secondly, Tulane Medical School did not get publicity because it did not want publicity. While this was not much of a victory for me, at least I understood why the teacher and the public did not know about Tulane's virus research programs.
Actually there were some very good reasons to keep subjects like researching monkey viruses quiet. The main ones were (1) potential public panic over an accidental epidemic, (2) growing public pressure from the animal rights movement, and (3) the secrecy demanded by covert operations.
The possibility of public panic over an accidental epidemic was a real and present danger to both researchers and their financial backers. One bad incident might trigger a public outcry that would effectively shut down all such research for years. The possibility of such an accidental epidemic was very real, and the scientists knew it.
During the early 1960s there were numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases among the animal handlers in monkey labs around the country. Waterborne diseases were transferred through saliva, moisture in the breath, and urine. They could be caught just by being around the primates. Cleaning out animal cages was dangerous. Feeding a monkey was dangerous. Taking a monkey out of a cage was dangerous. Holding a monkey was dangerous. Primates are intelligent mammals, and they quickly figured out that a trip with a handler often meant getting stuck with needles, or having the top of the skull chopped off with a power saw, or being injected with psychoactive drugs. The monkeys fought back. They bit their handlers. They urinated on them. They tried to escape. Monkey handlers who drew blood from one cancerous monkey to inject it into another occasionally stabbed themselves with needles full of blood laced with carcinogenic monkey viruses. The dangers were enormous, and the controls were feeble by today's standards. The generality of all this is well documented in medical libraries around the country. One book published during the 1960s made the point clearly in its title, The Hazards of Handling Simians, and listed the numerous outbreaks of diseases in the primate research facilities during the previous two decades.
Then, the monkey handlers would go home and resume their normal lives, including sexual activities. The potential for zoonoses (diseases jumping from animal to man) was very real, and the medical community knew it.
Consider these comments written in the 1960s by Richard Fiennes, Britain's leading primate researcher, about the dangers of primate research:
There is ... a serious danger that viruses from such closely related groups as the simian primates could show an altered pathogenesis in man, of which malignancy could be a feature. The dangers of such happening are enhanced by man's exposure in crowded cities to oncogenic agents and increased radiation hazards ...
The danger of transmitting simian viruses in vaccines is a real and alarming one ...
The further danger is that simian viruses might become adapted to human populations, and spread with appalling rapidity, and under circumstances in which there were no possible immediate means of control ...
Knowledge of prophylaxis against viral diseases is in its infancy, and time must elapse before any effective vaccine could be prepared, tested, and manufactured in bulk to protect populations against a pandemic caused by a new virus ...
Plainly, it is in the realms of virology that primate zoonoses present the greatest danger ...
Far too little is known of the virology of simians ...
Does this sound familiar? Does it not predict the current AIDS epidemic? Speaking further of this danger, Fiennes discussed O'nyong-nyong, a mildly lethal virus that swept Africa:
Had O'nyong-nyong been attended by a high death-rate ... the human population of a large part of East and Central Africa would have virtually ceased to exist. To such an extent, in spite of twentieth-century medicine, is man still vulnerable to attack from new viruses.
The danger was real. The fear of public panic was real. With experimental animals, unpredictable viruses and exposed animal handlers intermingled in a sweltering tropical city of nearly a million people (like New Orleans), the opportunity for a biological disaster was ripe.
The idea of an epidemic suddenly sweeping the streets of an American city was not foreign to the public. In fact, a movie called Panic in the Streets won the Academy Award for best screenplay in 1952. Panic in the Streets depicted a U.S. Public Health Service officer battling a modern day outbreak of bubonic plague on the streets of New Orleans. But the press of the 1950s and 1960s either did not consider the public's interest in medical matters substantial enough to warrant coverage, or they felt they had a higher duty to prevent public panic. Either way, the press did a poor job of covering the issue then. But, they do a better job of covering it today.
For example, an accident occurred at a Yale laboratory in the 1990s. The headline in Time shouted, "A Deadly Virus Escapes." The sub-headline continued, "Concerns about lab security arise as a mysterious disease from Brazil strikes a Yale researcher." The researcher worked at a Biohazard-3 lab and was studying a rare, potentially lethal virus when he broke a test tube. He failed to report the incident, which sprayed this virus into his nostrils. Instead, he went to visit friends in Boston. When the incident was discovered, the researcher was quarantined, and his friends were put under medical surveillance. The article concluded, "If researchers do not tighten some of their procedures, the next outbreak might not be so benign." All of which makes one wonder: What safety procedures were enforced in the monkey labs of the 1960s? And what procedures would have been followed in an underground medical laboratory with no visible sponsor?
To understand the type and extent of monkey virus research being done in medical schools in the 1950s and 1960s, I went to medical libraries and started reading the history of virology. While even an overview of these activities is beyond our scope at the moment, there are a few points worth mentioning. First is that it was well established in these medical research circles around the world prior to 1960 that certain monkey viruses caused various types of cancer, including cancers of the skin, lungs, and bones.
Excerpted from Dr. Mary's Monkey by Edward T. Haslam. Copyright © 2014 Edward T. Haslam. Excerpted by permission of Trine Day LLC.
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