Public Health Hall Of Shame Nominees

The NFL has a hall of fame in Canton. Cooperstown has the baseball hall of fame. There is even a polka hall of fame in Euclid, Ohio. It is time to create a memorial to prominent figures in public health but instead of a hall of fame, I propose we create a hall of shame to recognize people whose actions have promoted disease, injuries, and death. Here are 10 people worthy of induction into the Public Health Hall of Shame, listed in chronological order.

1. Christopher Columbus

Unlike many of of the Hall of Shame nominees, Christopher Columbus did not knowingly promote the spread of disease but his inadvertent actions make him worthy of inclusion. He was the first worldwide disease importer/exporter. On October 12, 1492, Columbus arrived in the Bahamas bringing to the newly discovered lands European diseases. When he returned to Spain on March 15, 1493, he brought gifts from the New World. One of those gifts carried by crew members was syphilis that then spread to Spanish soldiers. Two years later, in 1495, Pope Innocent VIII invited King Charles of France to wage war against the King of Naples in Italy. Spanish mercenaries employed by the French army brought syphilis with them to Naples and within a few years, syphilis had spread throughout Europe. Because of the association with the French army, syphilis became known as the “French disease” but it was really the Spanish sailors who brought it back with them from the Americas. Recently, historians have proposed that syphilis occurred sporadically in Europe before Columbus sailed but given the correlation with the Naples war, it seems likely that his crew carried the infection on their return to Spain thus fostering its European spread in the 16th century. For his contribution to the spread of syphilis to Europe (even though inadvertently), Christopher Columbus is nominated to the Hall of Shame.

2. Hernán Cortés

Another Spaniard who warrants inclusion in our Hall of Shame was the conquistador, Hernán Cortés. He was from a lesser nobility family in Spain but chose to come to the New World to seek gold and silver rather than live the life of a nobleman in Europe. In February 1519, he sailed from Cuba to Mexico in order to conquer the Aztecs and loot their empire. His force of 1,000 men was no match for the 200,000 residents in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in Central Mexico. But Cortés had a secret weapon… smallpox. One of Cortés’ soldiers had become infected with smallpox before leaving Cuba. The Aztecs and other Native Americans had no immunity to smallpox because it had not existed in the Americas until it was brought by the early European explorers. 70 days after Cortés first arrived in Mexico, 40% of the population of Tenochtitlan was dead from smallpox. Within a few years, between 5-7 million Aztecs and other indigenous Mexicans died from smallpox. Cortés proved that infectious diseases are more powerful in battle than swords and cannon. In all, it is suspected that infectious diseases brought by European explorers resulted in the death of up to 95% of the native population of the Americas. For his actions resulting in the deaths of millions of Native Mexicans due to smallpox, Hernán Cortés is nominated to the Hall of Shame.

Honorable mention: Colonel Henry Bouquet. In June 1763, Bouquet was the commanding officer at Fort Pitt during Potomac’s War. When the fort was under siege by members of the Delaware Tribe, Bouquet needed help to defeat the Native Americans. So, he ordered his men to distribute smallpox-infested blankets to the besieging warriors in an attempt to infect them and reduce their forces. More than 100 Native Americans died from the resultant smallpox outbreak. Bouquet can be considered the father of germ warfare.

3. Anthony Comstock

In 1873, U.S. postal inspector Anthony Comstock formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Later that year, he lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass what became known as the Comstock Act that prohibited the postal service from delivering obscene material. As a result, more than 15 tons of books that Comstock determined were obscene were destroyed. These included anatomy books used by medical schools because those books included drawings of reproductive organs. Another provision of the Comstock Act was to prohibit the production of or publication of information about methods of contraception or prevention of venereal disease. Comstock was convinced that by making condoms illegal that Americans would stop having sex outside of marriage. He was oblivious to the fact that the drive to have sex is the most powerful drive in all species of living organisms on planet Earth. He zealously prosecuted and imprisoned anyone who defied his definition of morality, including Julius Schmidt, the inventor of the rubber condom. After release from prison, Schmidt resumed condom manufacturing in a clandestine production facility in New York City. During World War I, being unable to legally sell his condoms to the U.S. Army because of the Comstock Act, Schmidt turned to other allied governments that enthusiastically purchased and distributed condoms to their servicemen. As a result, unlike other Allied armies, at any given time, approximately 15% of the U.S. military force in Europe was actively infected with a venereal disease. Eventually, the U.S. government relented and the production and distribution of condoms became legal but not before Comstock’s efforts had resulted in tens of thousands of cases of syphilis and gonorrhea that could otherwise have been prevented. For his efforts to promote the spread of sexually transmitted disease, Anthony Comstock is deserving of induction into the Hall of Shame.

4. Mary Mallon

From 1900 to 1907, Mary Mallon worked for eight wealthy New York families as a cook. At each household where she worked, household members developed typhoid fever. When a public health investigator determined that Ms. Mallon was the common link in the series of typhoid outbreaks, he went to interview her. But when he asked her to provide samples to test, she attacked him with a fork. She was sentenced by the Health Department to quarantine at North Brother Island from 1907 – 1910. She was released from quarantine under the condition that she never resume work as a cook again. However, she went back to cooking for families, restaurants, and hospitals under a false name. Everywhere she went, she left a trail of typhoid cases. In 1915, when 25 inpatients developed typhoid at a hospital where she worked as a cook, she was again sentenced to quarantine at North Brother island where she lived for 23 years. For her efforts to spread typhoid fever as an asymptomatic carrier, she earned the name “Typhoid Mary” and warrants induction into the Hall of Shame.

5. Emma Marie Harrington

Also known as E.C. Harrington, she was an attorney and the first woman registered to vote in San Francisco. She was a champion of progressive issues in California in the early 1900’s. However, she became famous for her actions that today would make her the darling of political conservatives. In March 1918, an army cook at Camp Funston in Kansas became sick with a respiratory infection. Within days, 522 soldiers became ill. Because the U.S. had entered World War I, troops from Camp Funston were sent to Europe to fight. By April, the H1N1 strain of influenza had spread throughout the world. Within 2 years, one-third of the world’s population had become infected. The number of deaths were estimated to be as high as 100 million making it the second most deadly pandemic after the 14th century bubonic plague. Because there were no vaccines or anti-viral medications at that time, the only defense against influenza was to avoid getting it in the first place. The two public health measures that were found to reduce the spread of the infection were face masks and banning mass gatherings. But some Americans considered face mask mandates to be an affront to personal liberty. Many of them organized to oppose face masks which they called “muzzles”. One of these organizations was the San Francisco Anti-Mask League and E. C. Harrington was its president. During the fall of 1918 and early winter of 1919, more than 3,000 San Francisco residents had died from influenza and the death rate per 100,000 was one of the highest in the world. Despite magnitude of deaths, the Anti-Mask League put enormous political pressure on the city government to lift its mask ban. On January 27, 1919, Mrs. Harrington submitted a petition to the city’s Board of Supervisors to repeal the mask ordinance and 5 days later, on February 1, 1919, San Francisco lifted its mask requirement. For helping to promote influenza deaths in 1919 and for later inspiring thousands of anti-maskers during the COVID-19 pandemic, E. C. Harrington deserves nomination into the Hall of Shame.

6. John W. Hill

America’s economic fortunes were built on tobacco. When anticipated riches from early settlements such as Jamestown failed to materialize, the settlers turned to growing tobacco for export to Europe. Demand for tobacco was enormous and soon farms and plantations across the colonies were making their fortunes by growing tobacco. The invention of a machine for large scale manufacturing of cigarettes in 1880 revolutionized the U.S. tobacco industry. After the turn of the century, per capita cigarette consumption increased exponentially. But by 1950, there were increasing reports that tobacco smoke could be harmful to people’s health. The CEOs of the largest cigarette makers – American Tobacco Co., R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Benson & Hedges, U.S. Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson, were worried that sales would suffer so they turned to John W. Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, one of the top public relations firms in the country. In 1953, Hill devised a PR campaign to discredit the mounting scientific data and named it “Operation White Coats”. The plan was to employ physicians and scientists (who wore white coats) to downplay the health hazards of cigarette smoke. Operation White Coats was the genesis of the Tobacco Research Council that provided easy-to-obtain grants to prominent medical researchers for studies that showed health benefits of nicotine and other tobacco components. Hill’s cigarette marketing strategy was successful and by 1965, 45% of U.S. adults were daily smokers. In reality many people have contributed to the the misinformation campaigns of American tobacco companies but John W. Hill stands out as of the most effective in denying that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer, COPD, and other diseases. His has been a legacy of death and even today, smoking accounts for 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S., or about 1 out of every 5 deaths. For his contribution to to the death of millions of Americans since his 1953 advertising campaign, John W. Hill is our 6th nominee to the Hall of Shame.

Honorable Mention: Carrie Nation. She was the public face of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union which was the primary driver of the prohibition movement that led to passing the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing the sale of alcohol on January 16, 1919. She claimed to have a divine vision from God commanding her to destroy bars and saloons. She traveled across the United States with a hatchet that she would use to smash saloon fixtures and liquor bottles. She described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like”. Overall, prohibition did reduce U.S. alcohol consumption by about 30% but instead of drinking low-alcohol percentage beer, people just started drinking bootlegged liquors. These were produced in unregulated stills and were frequently contaminated with methanol. Sellars of illegal spirits would often water them down and then add various poisonous chemicals to mimic the taste and color of liquors. During prohibition, over 1,000 people per year died from consuming tainted liquor. Within 15 years, it became apparent that prohibition did not stop people from drinking, it only created a market for poisonous moonshine. In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition.

7. Peter Duesberg, PhD

Athel cb CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1980’s, gay men were dying from an immunodeficiency syndrome and no one knew why. In 1983, the cause was identified simultaneously by French virologist Luc Montagnier and American virologist Robert Gallo. It was a virus that became known as HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus. Soon after, a lab test was created to diagnose the infection followed by development of AZT, a life-saving anti-viral drug that could treat AIDS. These milestones should have been celebrated by the medical and scientific community as breakthroughs in conquering AIDS. But history has proven that for every disease, there is a disease denialist and for AIDS, the most prominent denialist was Peter Duesberg. He is a Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of California, Berkley who built a successful academic career on his discovery of genes that could cause cancer. He argued that HIV was a harmless virus and that the cause of AIDS was long-term consumption of recreational drugs and anti-viral drugs. Because of his academic credentials, he developed a following of AIDS denialists in the 1990’s. Around the globe, people continued to die of AIDS and by 2000, about 25% of all deaths in South Africa were due to AIDS. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, convened an AIDS advisory committee to help direct public policy. The committee included Peter Duesberg. Mbeki bought into Duesberg’s AIDS denialism and withheld the use of anti-retroviral drugs in his country. As a result, it is estimated that there were 330,000 preventable deaths from AIDS in South Africa. Duesberg has kept up his claims that HIV does not cause AIDS and as recently as 2012 said on the Joe Rogan podcast that HIV is “one of the most harmless type of viruses we know”. For his actions that contributed to one-third of a million AIDS deaths in South Africa and his inspiration for AIDS denialists everywhere, Peter Duesberg should be nominated for the Public Health Hall of Shame

Honorable Mention: Christine Maggiore. She was diagnosed with HIV in 1992 and became involved in AIDS activism. In 1994, she met Peter Duesberg who convinced her that HIV does not cause AIDS. She came to believe that her own positive HIV test was actually due to an influenza vaccination. She authored a book entitled What If Everything You Thought You Knew about AIDS Was Wrong? and became prominent in the AIDS denialist community. She founded an organization that urged HIV-positive pregnant women to avoid anti-HIV medication. Ironically, she went on to become pregnant herself and refused to take HIV medications. She give birth to a daughter, Eliza Jane, and refused to allow her infant daughter to be tested for HIV. Eliza Jane died of AIDS at age 3 and Christine Maggiore died of AIDS three years later.

8. Jay Dickey

Most of our Hall of Shame nominees are proposed because of their actions that resulted in the proliferation of disease. Although bullets are not a disease, guns have proliferated in the United States just like contagious pathogens. Each year, more than 45,000 Americans die from gunshots and twice that number suffer non-fatal gun injuries. One of the barriers to reducing firearm deaths over the past 25 years has been a law prohibiting research into firearm-related deaths and injuries. The architect of that law was U.S. Representative James Dickey of Arkansas who at the behest of the National Rifle Association, added a clause to the 1996 Omnibus bill that became known as the Dickey Amendment. The amendment stated that “…none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” It effectively stopped all research by the CDC into gun-related deaths and injuries. It was not until 2018 that Congress passed a law allowing the CDC to report data on firearm injuries and not until 2020 that Congress allowed funding for firearm injury research by the CDC. By prohibiting the CDC to study gun injuries for 22 years, there was no good data on which to base public policy to reduce firearm injuries and hundreds of thousands of Americans died from guns. Later in his life, Dickey reversed his opinion about gun violence research but he nevertheless deserves inclusion in the Hall of Shame.

Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Honorable mention: Wayne LaPierre. Mr. LaPierre has been the executive vice president and chief executive of the National Rifle Association since 1991. It was he who was the principal lobbyist who influenced Dickey to add the NRAs amendment to the Omnibus bill in 1996. LaPierre has continued to lobby for the proliferation of guns in the United States. Because of his efforts, the U.S. is now the only country in the world with more guns than people.

9. Andrew Wakefield, MD

Bladość, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As the son of two physicians, it was no surprise that Andrew Wakefield went to medical school at St. Mary’s Medical School in London. He went on to do research in liver and small intestine transplantation and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He developed a hypothesis that the measles virus might be the cause of Crohn’s disease. This evolved into a hypothesis that the measles vaccine might cause Crohn’s disease. Both of these hypotheses were disproven. But Wakefield was undeterred in his quest to link the measles vaccine to some disease. So, he turned to autism and in 1998, he published a paper in The Lancet in which he concluded that 12 children with autism developed “autistic enterocolitis” from the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella vaccine). He then called for a suspension of childhood vaccination with MMR in a press conference at his hospital. In 2000, he repeated his claims on the CBS news show, 60 Minutes, introducing his theory to American vaccine conspiracy theorists. In 2004, the British public service network Channel 4 reported that before he published his 1998 article about the MMR vaccine, Wakefield submitted a patent for a rival measles vaccine that he said would not cause autism. Presumably, if his vaccine replaced the MMR vaccine worldwide, he would stand to profit enormously. He also started a company to make diagnostic test kits for “autistic enterocolitis” that he predicted would make him $43 million per year. In 2009, his original research was found to be fraudulent and in 2010, The Lancet retracted his 1998 article. Three months later, his medical license was revoked. Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s false claims about the MMR vaccine were the inspiration for other anti-vaxxers. This not only led to thousands of children not receiving appropriate vaccinations but also laid the groundwork for false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines. For his efforts to increase childhood infections, Andrew Wakefield should be included in the Hall of Shame.

Maxlovestoswim, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Honorable Mention: Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. The son of the late Senator Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy is an environmental lawyer who makes a living as an anti-vaxxer. Since 2005, he has promoted Andrew Wakefield’s discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. When 2 Samoan infants died in 2018, he opined that the cause of their death was the MMR vaccine. It was later determined that the infants had been errantly injected with a muscle relaxant along with the vaccine and the muscle relaxant was the cause of death. Nevertheless, his views caused many Samoans to forgo the MMR vaccine in their children. As a consequence, in 2019, a measles outbreak resulted in 5,700 infections or 3% of the Samoan population; 83 Samoans died from measles infections. Kennedy became convinced that the preservative thimerosal in vaccines could cause neurological disorders such as autism in children and spread anti-vaccine misinformation. As a result, thousands of pregnant women refused influenza vaccination and thousands of parents refused to allow their children to get flu shots resulting in countless influenza infections and deaths. Many studies have shown that thimerosal in vaccines is safe. He has been a tireless conspiracy theorist and suggested that Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates conspired to prolong the COVID pandemic for financial gain. He promoted the use of ivermectin to treat COVID, despite studies showing that the anti-parasite drug had no effect on COVID infection. Other members of the Kennedy family issued a joint statement about his efforts and said: “…on vaccines he is wrong. And his and others’ work against vaccines is having heartbreaking consequences.”

10. Joseph Mercola, DO

The last of our nominations is for efforts to promote the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Joseph Mercola is an American alternative medicine proponent with a lucrative internet business selling dietary supplements. He stopped seeing patients in 2009 to devote his attention to his internet business and has stated that his net worth is in excess of $100 million. Following in Andrew Wakefield’s shoes, he has been a staunch vaccine critic. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that Dr. Mercola really hit his stride by promoting unproven supplements (that he sold) as treatments for COVID. He also advocated using inhaled hydrogen peroxide to prevent or cure COVID. An article in the New York Times identified him as the single most influential spreader of COVID misinformation. Becker’s Hospital Review reported that a “Disinformation Dozen” individuals were responsible for 65% of all of the misinformation about COVID and number 1 on that list was Joseph Mercola. His actions have contributed to unfounded fears of effective COVID vaccines and even as of today, one-third of the U.S. population is not fully vaccinated. For his contribution to the perpetuation of the COVID pandemic that has so far killed more than 1 million Americans, Dr. Joseph Mercola is our 10th nominee for induction into the Hall of Shame.

Honorable Mention: Sherri Tenpenny, DO. Occupying the 4th rank in the COVID “Disinformation Dozen” is Ohio’s own Dr. Sherri Tenpenny. She is an anti-vaccine activist who supports the claim that vaccines cause autism. She has written 4 books claiming dangers of vaccines and has stated that COVID vaccines cause death, autoimmune disease, and infertility. She sells these books along with videos and dietary supplements on her website. She stated that COVID-19 vaccines will turn people into “transhumanist cyborgs” and that “by the end of 2022, every fully vaccinated person over the age of 30 may have the equivalent of full-blown vaccine-induced immune suppressed AIDS”. She claims that wearing face masks makes people unhealthy by suppressing their immune systems. In June 2021, she was called by Ohio Republican legislators to testify at the Ohio Statehouse against vaccine mandates. She testified that the COVID vaccines cause people to become magnetized and meanwhile her minions posted on-line videos of spoons stuck to their noses to try to prove her point. Dr. Tenpenny’s claims about magnetism proved to be too far-fetched even for Ohio’s conservative State Representatives and the bill to ban childhood vaccine requirements died in committee.

History is replete with people who have helped to spread disease. Some, like Columbus, did it unknowingly. Some, like Bouquet, did it purposefully. Some, like Comstock, did it in defiance of human nature. Some, like Hill, did it by spreading misinformation. Others, like Mercola, did it in order to make a profit. But whether their actions were intended or unintended, each of our nominees for induction in the  Public Health Hall of Shame helped to promote disease, death, or injury by their actions. The bitter news for the medical profession is that as long as we have people like these 10 inductees, doctors and morticians will never go out of business.

August 9, 2022

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital