The Age of Autism before thimerosal

28 Sep

Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill have written a book, The Age of Autism. It expands on Mr. Olmsted’s UPI series of the same name and uses the same logic: build a narrative that links mercury to illnesses and claim this as proof that mercury is the cause.

One can download the first 46 pages of the book for free on iTunes, buy the book, wait for it to come to your library or used book story (don’t count on the used bookstore route. Last report I got was only about 600 books sold in the opening time for this book). Or, one could just not read it ever.

If you want just an idea of what the book is about you can read a short excerpt on the publisher’s website. It starts with this simple statement:

We believe that autism was newly discovered in the 1930s for the simple reason that it was new.

Why was it new? If I understand the logic, the idea is that a new mercury compound was invented and tested around that time: thimerosal. From a recent interview, here are Dan Olmsted’s words:

What we did really was try to trace the rise of autism and that led us to look at the first eleven families who had children diagnosed in the 1930’s .. in the famous paper. We were able to identify seven of those first eleven kids, who were only known by their first name and last initial. When we did, we found what we thought was significant exposure of the family to mercury, in particular a new kind of mercury that came on the market .. that was used in fungicides for agriculture and in vaccines. So, we think as that happened, the first cases appeared. Then it seemed reasonable to believe that when the vaccine schedule that included much more mercury exploded in the 1990’s and so did autism .. there’s probably a connection that has been missed here.

First eleven kids? First studied or first with autism? They seem to be asserting that these are, indeed, the first autistics ever.

Thimerosal was invented in 1927
. What strikes me odd about the position of Mr. Blaxill and Mr. Olmsted is that ten years before the invention of thimerosal, someone was born who would later be diagnosed with autism and receive support from the California Department of Developmental Services (CDDS) under the label “autism”. I know this because the data are publicly available. The CDDS data have been used for years to promote the idea of a vaccine-induced autism epidemic. Of course Mr. Olmsted and Mr. Blaxill are aware of these datasets as their colleague David Kirby made use of them many times over the years in his promotion of autism as vaccine injury, starting with his book “Evidence of Harm, Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy.”

Here is a list of the birth year and the number of people for each birth year who were getting services from the CDDS (note that these data were from the 1990’s. Some or all of these autistics may have passed on):

Birth-year number of CDDS consumers under the autism label
1930 1
1929 2
1928 3
1924 1
1923 1
1922 3
1917 1

There were not a lot of autsitics born before 1930 and still alive receiving services in the 1990’s, this is true. But, the oldest person in that group was 78 at the time. That’s one year older than Donald T. is this year, for those following that story. .Be that as it may, there are a number of CDDS consumers who were born before thimerosal was invented. It would be unwise to assume that these are all the people born before 1930 who were diagnosed autistic. They are but an example.

From what I’ve read, Mr. Olmsted and Mr. Blaxill spent about five years looking for the origins of autism (the time since Mr. Olmsted’s original UPI series of articles). They traveled internationally and, from their description at least, appear to have left no stone unturned in their search.

I wonder, did they ever challenge their assumption that autism was new? Did they seek out autistics who predated thimerosal and/or those who weren’t research subjects of Dr. Kanner? Or did they merely rework and expand on Mr. Olmsted’s previous work on Kanner’s subjects?

In their statement attempting to distance themselves from anti-vaccine groups, Mr. Olmsted and Mr. Blaxill state:

We don’t want crops to wither, or houses to rot, or children to die of vaccine- preventable illnesses. We simply want to stop an autism epidemic whose origin we believe can be discerned from a careful examination of its environmental history.

“Careful” examination. I wonder.

26 Responses to “The Age of Autism before thimerosal”

  1. Julian Frost September 28, 2010 at 06:17 #

    Sullivan, I don’t know if you saw the news reports about William McGonagall, widely regarded as the worst English language poet in history. Experts are claiming that he may have been autistic. He was born in 1825, and thus predates thimerosal by over a century. Also, I believe a very strong case can be made that Isaac Newton was autistic.
    Looks like you’re right. Their “careful” examination wasn’t so careful after all.

  2. Scott September 28, 2010 at 10:47 #

    I think you are being a little unfair. They did conduct a careful examination. They started with their conclusion (Thiomersal = Autism) and then carefully cultivated a story to support that, while carefully ignoring any of those pesky facts that would contradict their beliefs.
    And then, of course, they carefully ignored the last 10-12 years when the exposure to thiomersal has almost disappeared and autism has not changed.

  3. Dawn September 28, 2010 at 12:43 #

    And, of course, what B & O ignore is NOT that Kanner found a new disease. What Kanner did was simply identify the existing symptoms and combine the symptoms into an identifiable separate syndrome. Kanner, himself, IIRC, recognized that many of those children could have been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. And he found 11 within a short time period for his case study. So…a rare disease? More like a disease that has always been around, and hidden within families or warehoused in institutions (where Donald HAD been until his mother removed him against the doctor’s wishes, and where 4 of Kanner’s 11 died.)

  4. Barbara September 28, 2010 at 13:52 #

    Hans Asperger’s clinic was ‘observing’ an autistic Professor of Maths for 30 years, before 1944, when Asperger mentioned this in his PhD. So that’s 1914, huh? I wonder if B&O tracked that one down? Asperger was lecturing on children with autism in 1938.

  5. Chris September 28, 2010 at 16:33 #

    I recently read the biographies of Paul Erdos and Paul Dirac. They both seemed fairly autistic, and there is speculation in the very long and detailed Dirac biography.

  6. livsparents September 28, 2010 at 18:13 #

    I would love for someone to go down a list and see how many neurological issues were ‘born’ (read: named) Since 1930. How may ‘hystericals’ were reborn PMS; we could go on for probably hundreds of rows. Mental health issues were not created in the 20th century…they were just categorized….

    • Sullivan September 28, 2010 at 18:37 #


      You forget, in this situation absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

      The logic goes something like this: How many people were diagnosed with autism via the DSM-IV criteria in 1900? None. Therefore they didn’t exist.

  7. Kev September 28, 2010 at 18:41 #

    As I’ve said before, respected doctors were seeing autism a long time ago. 1887 in the instance I’ve linked to. And seeing as B & O put such a lot of store in anecdote, I’ll add my own – my great uncle, born pre Great War and great Aunt, also born pre Great War were autistic and AS respectively.

  8. Shannon September 28, 2010 at 18:53 #

    Folks interested in evidence of autism long before Thimerosal (and about the emergence of Kanner, Bettleheim — and as a bonus, loving acceptance of a child with autism) should read Paul Collins’ entertaining history-entwined-with-memoir book Not Even Wrong.

  9. Leila September 28, 2010 at 18:54 #

    Donald Triplett’s father was clearly an Aspie.

    Olmstead and Blaxill show a lack of intellectual curiosity and research skills when they so quickly conclude that autism was inexistent when the disorder wasn’t named or categorized. It’s so stupid that it also would lead one to assume that it only existed in the United States because doctors in other countries weren’t studying that condition yet.

    If I’m not mistaken, Unstrange Minds by Dr. Grinker mentions a few examples of autism way before the 20th century. I’m sure that a serious researcher on mental illness and old insane asylums would be able to find cases anywhere in the world.

    • Sullivan September 28, 2010 at 20:07 #

      There is much evidence for autism existing pre thimerosal. One issue that comes up is that these individuals were not diagnosed so there is speculation (both ways) as to whether they were or were not autistic.

      That’s why I chose the CDDS dataset. These are not speculations. These are documented individuals who are/were autistic and were born before the advent of thimerosal.

      These are data that Mr. Blaxill and Mr. Olmsted are well aware of. The story they present is not new. The response to their story is not new. Their lack of adequate effort to address these issues is not new, nor is it unexpected.

      It is worth bringing up from time to time in my opinion.

      Liela, one example that comes up from time to time is the Wild Boy of Aveynon. He is mentioned in Prof. Grinker’s book. As are the children discussed by Langdon Down (who gave his name to Down Syndrome). My guess is that this is a part of the piece that Kev links to in his comment above.

      Mr. Blaxill and Mr. Olmsted appear to have expanded on the previous UPI series (which wasn’t even carried in many newspapers by the last installments, if my memory serves). Rather than challenge their own assumptions, they appear to have applied the same failed methodology to other mental conditions.

      If you read the interview transcript from their appearance on the Imus show, you will see they now say “In fact, we argue that if you go back before 1930, the rate was effectively zero in the human population. “.

      I need to take a quick aside. This is a statement made by people used to inflating the importance of their conclusions with needles verbiage. “…in the human population”. Oh-kay. What does that add to the sentence? Nothing. By definition we are speaking about the human population. But note the “effectively” in “effectively zero”. Having been burnt before by falsifiable statements they are learning to waffle.

      It isn’t that bad. Scientists to this all the time. As in when scientists say, “you can’t prove a negative, but we can say that there is effectively zero chance that thimerosal caused an autism epidemic”.

      As a final aside, the data I used for the above post was readily available because it was used to try to recreate one of the more misleading graphs made to promote the thimerosal-induced-autism-epidemic. That graph is in, amongst other places, this post on Autism Natural Variation. Two funny things. First, the slide was claiming that the autism rates in the CDDS data were flat or going down–in 1995! This was coincident with a reduction in the thimerosal exposure from vaccines, at least according the man who created that graph. The second funny thing: the man who created the graph was Mark Blaxill. Yes, he has these CDDS data. Yes, this debate is old and yes, I doubt he will ever be convinced. It’s too bad. 10 years of advocacy could have accomplished something of value.

  10. Neuroskeptic September 28, 2010 at 20:07 #

    Thimerosal was invented in the 1927, but mercury was invented by God. And people had been using it for various purposes for a long time. We all know about the “mad hatters” who were driven mad by mercury poisoning. There’s a wealth of data there on the effects of mercury exposure on the brain (especially since at that time young children were routinely sent to work in dangerous jobs) for those who are interested and aren’t obsessed with the idea that it must have caused autism.

  11. Leila September 28, 2010 at 21:42 #

    What kills the mercury hypothesis is the fact that autism is so widespread and prevalent regardless of the level of exposure and geographical region, race or ethnicity. If mercury – or any other chemical for that matter – was the culprit, you’d find huge clusters in some areas but that’s not the case.

    Thanks Kev and Sullivan for the links. I also followed the link from Kathleen on Kev’s old post that leads you to Dr. Dickinson descriptions of children in the Victoria era in London.

  12. Sullivan September 28, 2010 at 22:49 #


    I think that Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted would retort with studies out of Texas by Ray Palmer and in California by Gail Windham which purport to show increased autism rates in areas of high mercury exposure.

    Later studies by Hertz-Picciotto and also by Bearman in California have shown clusters of high autism prevalence, but these are *not* associated with environmental toxins. Prof. Hertz-Picciotto’s study found that parent’s education was associated with higher prevalence. Bearman’s group showed a single cluster and, again, no link to environmental toxins.

    The fact that the rise in autism prevalence in places like California is so uneven argues strongly against the vaccine hypotheses, as these tend to be administered evenly across a state.

    Once again, the Natural Variation blog is worth reading as he discussed the Palmer study and brought up the important point of controlling for urbanicity. That is something that Prof. Palmer did not do and will likely affect his results dramatically.

  13. Barbara September 28, 2010 at 23:02 #

    I was born in one of the heaviest metal communities in the UK, in 1945. I say this, because when a new freeway was excavated, in the 1990s, we had to get guys with white suits and space headgear in, to look at the contamination. It was massive. Every known heavy metal was shown to be present in the excavation of St Helens, Lancashire.

    We had a chemical industry from the late 18th century. We had smog like you wouldn’t believe. The air I breathed from my birth was contaminated by every chemical insult known to humankind.

    Yet in my elementary school, 8 of us, in 1955, in a working class community, progressed to high school, a year early. 6 of us were classed as prodigies – 4 boys and 2 girls. We were fast-tracked.

    4 of the ‘boys’ in my class, at my little elementary school, are now high end academics. Possibly the ‘biggest’ of these is the Professor of AI at Oxford University. Another is one of the world’s leading astro physicists, in Geneva. We girls did rather less well, being girls in that time and having to deal with cultural norms. My best friend, the genius female mathematician, died of a stroke 10 years ago. I’m still going strong and writing up a storm, and still ranked 14th in the world on verbal intelligence.

    Hey, if this is what heavy metal contamination does – bring it on!:)

    Give me more!

  14. Tsu Dho Nimh September 29, 2010 at 02:53 #

    Lord Melbourne’s only child, Augustus, was a fine healthy boy until at about 10 months old he suffered “fits”. Later descriptions of him are typical autistic behavior – disinterest in people, intense focus on some things, very excitable.

    And a man writing about “Juvenile Idiocy” describes some children in his asylum who seemed normal until about two, when they “stopped talking and regressed. This was the 1850s, I think. (I’ll have to find that book)

  15. Roger Kulp September 29, 2010 at 03:40 #

    Has Asperger’s 1914 Ph.D thesis been published anywhere before, especially online?

    You can pretty much assume anybody who was labelled as a “savant” was autistic.Does anybody know when this term was first coined or published?It must go back centuries.

    As some of you know,I have a lot of other diagnoses besides autism.These include at least two different inborn errors of metabolism.I found a very interesting article,recently,about a girl who had a folate metabolism disorder,similar to mine,but she had no B12 involvement,and had far more acute neurodegeneration than I ever did.She regressed at 2 years,3 months “after a febrile illness”.She was verbal,but could only say 6 or 8 words,and suffered complete motor,social, and developmental regression. There are a lot of similarities to Hannah Poling here.She was not diagnosed with autism,at this time,this took place in the early 1980s,because of the diagnostic criteria at the time,but no doubt she would now.

    If anybody knows of older cases like this,I would be very interested.Autism,with the unique regression and pattern seen in cases like Hannah Poling,that involve metabolic disease,did not start with vaccines either.

  16. Kev September 29, 2010 at 07:45 #

    Roger – available via Kathleen in the original German:

  17. Barbara September 29, 2010 at 10:36 #


    Roger – Has Asperger’s 1914 Ph.D thesis been published anywhere before, especially online?

    @Roger – the thesis was published in 1944, not 1914. The reason I mentioned 1914 is that Asperger cited an autistic patient that had been observed at the Vienna clinic, for ‘three decades’. Three decades before 1944 is 1914.

  18. Catherina September 29, 2010 at 12:43 #

    Kathleen’s link doesn’t work, this one here:

    Click to access Asperger_Hans.pdf

    loads a very nicely typed up version of the same article (in German, which doesn’t bother me 😉 )

  19. Catherina September 29, 2010 at 12:47 #

    oh, and it is his “Habilitation” not his PhD.

  20. Ruth September 29, 2010 at 14:52 #

    I was reading a short work by George Elliot called “Brother Jacob”. The title character would today be diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome, which was described clinically in the 1950’s. Several of Dicken’s characters appear to be Aspies.

    My father (b. 1920) would have been considered an Aspie.

  21. Catherina September 29, 2010 at 15:16 #

    I just heard yesterday of someone with “severe autism” who was cared for by his parents in the 1920ies to 1940ies. This story may become very public at some point and I will make sure to come and share.

  22. Joe Keenan November 7, 2010 at 07:01 #

    The criticisms of this book seemed to be based on “biographies” of long dead men who have no associates alive today nor medical evidence to suggest they suffered from autism. Such conjecture would be deemed with the same critical stance that the writers are being subjected to.

  23. Chris November 7, 2010 at 07:34 #

    Mr. Keenan, that is because this particular chapter is looking at the time before there was thimerosal. So they are writing about people who are over 83 year old. It kind of figures many are no longer alive.


  1. Tweets that mention Autism Blog - The Age of Autism before thimerosal « Left Brain/Right Brain -- - September 28, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kev, Liz Ditz, Early Autism, Catherina+ScienceMom, CA IZ Coalition and others. CA IZ Coalition said: The Age of Autism before thimerosal – leftbrainrightbrain #vaxfax […]

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