You bet your life

The measles are back with a vengeance, and so are the protests.

So far this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking six outbreaks affecting more than 100 people, with 68 cases in the Pacific Northwest alone, according to the CDC, Associated Press and Washington Post.

Yet despite the demonstrable success of vaccines—the near worldwide eradication of polio a case in point—anti-vaccination fervor is spreading like a virus. Some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would allow parents to opt out of childhood vaccinations, a move that could jeopardize not only the health of their children but others with whom they come into contact.

None of this is new. In 1897, Dr. Richard Slee, founder of the firm that would evolve into the U.S. operations of biologics company Sanofi Pasteur, faced a similar backlash when he introduced to the United States a vaccine to prevent smallpox.

The story of his struggle is told in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the fight to eradicate vaccine-preventable disease in the 20th Century. The story is a timely reminder of the efficacy and controversy of this form of medicine:

The new science of immunology had proven vaccines could save lives. It had progressed quickly from the late 1700s, when British physician Dr. Edward Jenner discovered that smallpox could be prevented by inoculating people with the substance from cowpox lesions. The vaccine worked. According to the New York City Health Department, the death rate from smallpox in 1869 was 21.9 per 100,000 people. In 1876, New York’s Vaccination Corps fanned out to inoculate the city. The following year, the death rate per 100,000 people had dropped to 0.18.

That did little to convince parents who’d heard reports that bacteria from the lesions had caused serious infections in some children.

Even with a tacit endorsement from the federal government, the fledgling biologicals industry still faced a daunting problem not related to finance — a public backlash against vaccination. Despite the reduction in mortality that immunization had brought to the nation, not all of its citizens were convinced this was good public policy, or even effective health care.

In 1908, a medical doctor from Niagara Falls, New York, J. W. Hodge, wrote that compulsory vaccination was “the crime of the century,” citing evidence that the process not only violated an American’s freedom but that it was ineffective. “The accumulated experience of more than one hundred years has conclusively demonstrated that vaccinia neither prevents smallpox nor mitigates that disease when it attacks the vaccinated.”

Slee countered those attacks and others in a letter to the Bergen County, New Jersey, Medical Society in 1910:

The growth of the anti-vaccination societies in this country is largely due to the undeniable fact that the protection by vaccination was sometimes followed by results that were more serious than would be a mild attack of smallpox. We are now passing through the transition state, so to speak, and in a short time physicians will begin to realize that the regulations of the government are wise and that the failures from time to time are more than offset by the undeniable elimination of many severe and unpleasant sequelae [an abnormality following a disease, like paralysis following polio].

Unless lawmakers take the decision out of the hands of the experts.

[Measles vaccine doesn’t cause autism, says a decade-long study of half a million people.]

 

Eradicating ignorance

We take vaccines for granted. We get our shots as kids and forget about the process until we have children of our own. In the Western Hemisphere, we generally don’t see the diseases that plague the Third World. We call them preventable.

A hundred years ago, the science of immunology was struggling, and so were its advocates. Just before Dr. Richard Slee was born in 1867, the French biologist Louis Pasteur had proven the germ theory of disease. It wasn’t until 1885 that Pasteur field tested his vaccine for rabies.

Twelve years later, when Slee built his laboratory to manufacture smallpox vaccine in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the disease was still considered a major threat to public health. It would not be eradicated worldwide until 1980. To complicate the issue, the technology of the time caused some of those patients to become ill. Because of those adverse reactions, vaccines of the time stimulated fear as well as immunity.

Some things haven’t change.

In Minnesota, 73 cases of measles have been confirmed this year, three more than the Spirit of Swiftwatertotal for the entire country last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The CDC and the World Health Organization also are concerned with the rise in the number of cases of mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

How did Dr. Slee manage to eradicate smallpox in America? And how has the science of infectious-disease prevention progressed over the last century?

You can follow the struggles and triumphs of the people who shaped modern medicine in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of vaccine development in the twentieth century. The book chronicles the pioneers of immunization who fought against the odds to establish this form of health care as standard public policy in America, with a focus on the U.S. operations of sanofi pasteur, the vaccines business of sanofi-aventis Group. Reviewers describe the work as “a thoroughly documented historical perspective of the vaccine industry in the US as seen through the history of one of its leading contributors that is also entertaining reading.”

Now, if you’re really ready for a Horatio Alger story with a medical spin, take a look at One in a Million by Mary G. Clark. In this ghosted memoir, Mary tells the story of how she took her wound-care company from the coal fields of Scranton, Pa. to the NASDAQ. The book starts with a touch of mysticism and ends with science, a fitting story for our times.

A ‘Haunted’ we will go

I’ve had several people ask what it was like on the set of Animal Planet’s new show “The Haunted.” (OK, two people, and one of them was me.) So I thought I’d chronicle my 15 minutes of fame in a blog post that is potentially read by millions and millions of people but has an actual readership of six. (I know and love you all.) So here goes.

A dark and stormy day
On the set of The Haunted 1It is a warm day in July with the look of rain and suspicion. Everyone on the set of “The Haunted,” a new show about paranormal animal activity for Animal Planet, seems to know what’s going on except my daughter and me. The show debuts in a few months and we’re in it, or at least I am, along with the owners of this place, the Candle Shoppe of the Poconos. An elegant stone-and-wood brownstone on the verge of Route 611 just north of the present U.S. headquarters of Sanofi Pasteur in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the home was built in 1897 by Dr. William Redwood Fisher, an early benefactor of Dr. Richard Slee, who built his Pocono Biological Labs across the street. The vaccine-maker was called Connaught Laboratories in 1996 when I was hired to write what would become the Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of the company. It later became Aventis Pasteur and now Sanofi Pasteur.

On the set of The Haunted 7Driving around the building, my daughter and I park in the lower lot and walk up the gravel to a wall that divides the building’s front from the highway. The air thickens with water and noise as trucks roar down Route 611 toward Sanofi. We introduce ourselves to our host, Linda Schlier, her husband Jim, who owns a towing business, and two women. One is Jim’s secretary, the other a woman who works in the shop. They’re sitting in lawn chairs by the wall. All are smoking, except Jim. His secretary looks about thirty with shag-cut blonde hair and thickly-veined hands. She takes a drag, looks me in the eye and says, “Who are you.”

Serious challenge. For a moment it feels as if I’ve wandered into a Philip Marlowe novel. Clad in dress shirt and pants as per the producer’s instructions, I feel out of place among the jeans and sweats, a situation that only adds to the discomfort. Then I remember I’m a guest here and tell her I’m the author of the history book. That stops the conversation.

Writing. What a glamorous life.

On the set of The Haunted 3In the beginning
With our backs to the highway we wait our turn to be filmed. This all started a few weeks earlier when Linda graciously offered to sell The Spirit of Swiftwater at her shop. I’d written a few pages about Dr. Fisher but didn’t know much more about him, since he wasn’t the focus of the book. When I delivered the copies Linda told me that Fisher had experimented on animals in the basement and that one of his two daughters had kept a chimpanzee as a pets. I asked how she knew this and she said she’d heard someone talking about it.

A week later I got a call from Alex of Picture Shack Entertainment, the production company for the series. He wanted any information I had on Dr. Fisher and his experiments. He was very nice. I told him I didn’t know about them but filled him in on the history of the labs and the house, which after Fisher died became the home of Kelly Antiques. The Schliers purchased the building in 2007. A few days later another of Picture Shack’s producers, Autumn, asked if she could interview me, on camera at the shop, about the history of the laboratory and the house.

Sure.

On the set of The Haunted 4We’re sitting on the wall when a rail-thin woman in black capris, t-shirt and engineer’s cap introduces herself as Autumn and says they’re running behind schedule and would I mind going on camera at 3:30 instead of 3. She is very polite. Fine. My daughter reads a book and listens to her MP3 player. I ask Linda about the shoot. Turns out they’re re-enacting the moment she and her employees saw odd patterns of light and shadows and felt cold air and scurrying spirits.

“Re-enacting?” I ask.

“Sure,” says Linda, who by now has to be thinking the guy who wrote the book is about a bright as a nightlight.

Mysterious figures
The film crew walks in and out of what used to be Dr. Fisher’s home, built as a retreat from his practice in Hoboken, New Jersey. He moved to the woods and cow pastures of Swiftwater to recuperate from illness. If he could hear the roar of traffic behind us, he’d flee the Pocono Mountain as if he’d seen a ghost. All of us (except the good doctor, who passed on to that great immunization clinic in the sky) watch the crew as it bolts the camera head to a tripod. They’re dressed in black and soon disappear inside the shop. We wait.

A thin twentysomething with black rectangular glasses and a wisp of a beard introduces himself as Alex and draws me On the set of The Haunted 6inside, just as three tall men with razor cuts and silver suitcases parade past. Paranormal investigators, Alex explains, said to be a team of former Pennsylvania state troopers from Hazleton, called in to measure psychic activity.

“We’re going to shoot them first,” he says. He is very deferential.

That’s when we notice a couple in their fifties sitting in the shade with three monkeys. They’re the handlers, here with an animal control officer who specializes in policing film sets. I grab my point-and-shoot camera and my daughter plays with the animals—capuchin monkeys named Bucky, Joey and Abbie. Bucky is 27. My daughter takes the old man, with his sad eyes, slender fingers and possum-like tail. She pets his brown fur while the others climb into her hair.

Welcome to the real world
Then Alex says it’s my turn. The shop consists of two stories of what is now retail space, an attic and a cellar. The interior of the first floor is paneled in wood, dimly lit with an oversized monarch chair and cobblestone fireplace. It’s crammed with candles. They pour forth a riot of scent. The crew sends me upstairs, where people crouch in the front room in the dark like monkeys.

“Go around to the other side and push the curtain aside,” one tells me. I duck under the curtain and sit on a metal chair in front of a large screen on metal legs. The room is so dark I can barely see Autumn in front of me and at first don’t notice a cameraman at the rear, near a window screened in black. A single diffusion light sits in the corner, casing a yellowish glow.

The camera guy introduces himself as Trevor. To put me at ease, he explains why the room is so dark (it’s for dramatic effect) while Autumn reviews what will happen during the interview. She is unfailingly polite and respectful but obviously on a tight schedule. Then she asks about Dr. Fisher and his contribution to medicine. This feels OK, I’m on safe ground. I start to talk about the history of what is now Sanofi Pasteur.

Autumn interrupts. “There’s a reflection. Can you take off your glasses?”

I slide them into my pocket and barely see her nod.

“Tell me about Dr. Fisher’s experiments with monkeys.”

I look at the dark shape that I assume is my interviewer. “I don’t know anything about that.”

“Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll feed you the answers.”

“What did he do?”

“He was doing experiments to find a cure for yellow fever. He had a guillotine and cut off the monkeys’ heads and did experiments on their brains.”

Suddenly I’m glad my daughter is waiting outside. No wonder Linda thinks the place is haunted.

“There are cages in the basement. You can see them later,” she says and asks about Fisher’s contribution to the labs. I start to set the stage by talking about the founder, Dr. Richard Slee, when she interrupts.

“We don’t care about Dr. Slee. This is about Dr. Fisher.”

OK. Slee’s the reason this house is here, but I’m here to cooperate. So play nice.

She tells me about Dr. Fisher and his alleged experiments and I repeat the information for the camera.

“You’re doing great,” she says in a voice that tells me she’s seen more excitement from the teacup ride at the carnival. She’s still respectful, and I appreciate the comment. Then she asks about the irony of Fisher dying before he can find a cure for a disease that killed his father. That gets my attention. The revelation is new to me, and for about the eighth time today I regret not doing more research on the enigmatic doctor.

“You are very articulate,” Autumn says and asks about the irony of Elizabeth Fisher keeping a pet chimp while her father killed monkeys in the name of science.

Odd. About as odd as my belief that a reality TV producer wants the facts about the labs instead of a dramatization about screaming monkeys. But I’m being unfair. Autumn is relying on the owners who can’t pin down their sources and I didn’t ask a lot of questions when asked to appear in the show. Flattery will get you almost anywhere.

On the set of The Haunted 8Into the cage
Back downstairs the crew films me walking into the building as I hold the book. They film Linda and me at the front counter as we rifle through pages. Then they want to film in the basement.

As soon as I open the door I can smell it, a mix of damp cement and coal ash. Down the narrow stairs we walk, past holes showing lathe through the plaster. A modern oil burner sits on a cement pad leading to a dirt floor. Cages made from chicken wire and boards squat in the corner. A closet with a 4-in. hole in the wooden wall is apparently where the monkeys stuck their heads—not a voluntary gesture, I take it. Linda says the owner of Kelly Antiques took the guillotine with her. Darn, it would have made a good prop. On the other side sits a smaller room with two work benches and items brought by the crew—beakers, test tubes, a white lab coat.

“My, my,” I hear myself say, and for a second I forget that the camera crew is behind me. “What have you been up to, Dr. Fisher?”

“Kinda creepy,” one of the crew says.

On the set of The Haunted 9They’re filming in dim light at slow frame rates that make moving figures stutter and the edges blur. Now I know why Autumn kept asking about the irony of this situation, about the contrast between this pastoral-looking building and the dark secrets it has kept, and why the crew is using those cinematic techniques. Still, as I glance around the basement, I wonder about how my role in this will be seen, since as far as I can tell no one has primary sources or documentation. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity under the sun, and a striving after publicity.

Upstairs I sign another release—the first is a two-page statement that allows the production company to film me, the second to show the book, a stack of which sits untouched on a shelf. And then we’re done.

Even though it’s after five, Autumn invites us to break for lunch. My daughter has waited patiently on the wall and wants to go home. Everyone has been unfailingly polite but it’s been long day, so we decline. Linda hands me her card and asks me to call her about publicity. I’m doubtful but pocket the card. Walking down the wet gravel to the car, we watch raindrops glint in dark beads on the roof. But despite the fact that we’ve left the windows down, the seats are dry.

Spooky.

Sign of the times
A few weeks after the shoot, the Schliers erect a 10-by-10-ft. lighted sign near the entrance to their shop, the kind that crews use to warn of construction and traffic jams. Its beady red lights read “The Animal Planet” and something about The Haunted. I call Linda to ask how she’s doing and she outlines plans to hire a designer who has worked with Disney to turn the basement into an amusement park. He’s going to build an arch over the entrance with overhanging monkeys.

Then on Wednesday I receive an email from Jim Schlier with a press release, a poster of the series, a photo of the front of the candle shop and the Animal Planet logo. The episode is now part of the premier on November 22. It’s called “Lost Souls of the Asylum.” The release reads, in part:

“Linda Schlier is thrilled when her husband, Jim, buys her an old brown stone in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, to serve as her candle shop. But not long after the shop opens, Linda begins hearing screeching monkeys and seeing terrifying, primate-like shadows. Linda flees, and although determined never to return to her store, she soon discovers that the house once belonged to a scientist who used spider monkeys for medical testing. Realizing the connection, she calls in a paranormal team and psychic to help remove the spirits.”

The morning after
“The Curse of the Candle Shoppe” is broadcast Sunday night as part of the program’s debut. Since we are temporarily without TV, I ask our neighbors, Mary and Pat, to tape the program. Mary calls on Monday to say she’ll drop off the tape later that day.

I ask about the show. She says it was “interesting.” She delivers the line with such a slow cadence that I can see her smile through the telephone line. I ask if it’s that bad.

“No,” she assures me. “It’s reality TV.”

“That bad?”

“No,” she laughs. “It’s just not our kind of show.”

Concerned that I’ve embarrassed myself mightily, I’m not looking forward to the show but, when the tape arrives, I throw it into the VCR and await the disaster with a cold heart. (Yes, I know, the technology dates to the time of Gutenberg.)

The program it isn’t that bad. The Schliers come across as sane, rational people: who wouldn’t be scared of noises if you were alone in an old building at night? Their reaction is the focal point of the show; the monkeys put in a guest appearance but there’s no screaming soundtrack of doom. The only time they appear is when Joey peeks through the hole in the wall where Dr. Fisher allegedly chopped off his predecessors’ heads.

The good news is that my part in the show is brief. My chief reaction is that I look older than I think I should look. Vanity of vanities. What’s that movie about the mirror never lying? The one at home apparently does. But what can you do? I’m lucky I can still run and breathe and take nourishment.

At work I feel conflicted when only one person mentions the show. The potential for embarrassment is great but where’s that 15 minutes of fame? Next time I see him I’m telling Warhol about this.

‘The Haunted’ fan club
As we’re leaving the diner, one of the waitresses asks, “Can I get your autograph?” Her voice is sweet and conspiratorial, with the hint of a smile.

That draws a laugh but her smile quickly dims. “Do you believe that place is haunted?” she asks and continues before I can answer. “I don’t. I think they’re faking it.”

“Ouch,” I say. “That’s a bit harsh.”

Maybe that’s the reality of reality TV.

I turn to leave but she has a parting comment. “That stuff about her being scared of sounds and shadow? That’s just not right.”

The next Saturday I bump into a relative at the post office. As soon as she sees me her face opens in mock amazement. Then Linda tells me that when her husband and brother were kids, they used to look up at the attic of Dr. Fisher’s old home as they rode by on the school bus.”

“What for?” I gamely ask.

“They were looking for monkeys.”

I know my fans.