Was Aids naturally transferred from primates to human beings? Or was it caused by a live polio vaccine given to thousands of Africans in the 1950s?by Matt Ridley / June 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The death of William Donald Hamilton on 7th March 2000 reverberated through biology like a thunderclap. Hamilton was probably the most famous evolutionary biologist in the world; a man whose bold theories had given birth to fruitful fields of inquiry not once but three times.
It was not the manner of his death which shook his colleagues so much. He died of malaria contracted in the Congo rain forest, where he had been looking for chimpanzee faeces-a tragic but not unsuitable death for a great naturalist whose curiosity about the animals of the tropical forest was an abiding theme of his life. What was disturbing was the reason why he was in the Congo in the first place. He was there in pursuit of an unfashionable, not to say cranky, theory: that Aids was caused by polio vaccination.
There was a general feeling, only muttered, that Bill might have gone a touch eccentric in endorsing this theory. Great scientists can go that way towards the end of their careers. (Linus Pauling believed that vitamin C could cure cancer. Fred Hoyle thought flu came from outer space. Alfred Russel Wallace became a spiritualist.) They seem to lose their scepticism. Some of Hamilton’s biologist colleagues were therefore embarrassed by his conversion to an unfashionable conspiracy theory. Theories about Aids have a tendency to become conspiracy theories, blaming either the medical profession or the military. But Hamilton was not often wrong. And it now looks as if he may be proved posthumously right about this one, too.
A month after he died, a big American laboratory bowed to pressure which it had been resisting for eight years, and released for independent testing five samples of a polio vaccine held in a deep freeze. A meeting of the Royal Society, to discuss the theory, had already been arranged for this May by Hamilton and two Aids researchers. In the wake of his death this meeting assumed symbolic significance. Several prominent Aids researchers announced that they would boycott it in protest at the respectability it lent to the vaccine theory. The Royal Society postponed the conference until the autumn-to the anger of Hamilton’s family. The stakes are getting higher.
Like all good conspiracy theories, the polio vaccine theory’s originators are its worst enemies. Chief of these, Louis Pascal, wrote long and angry polemics from a New York address and refused to meet even his…