Thousands of South American indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds, in order to for US scientists to study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, according to a book out next month.
The astonishing story of genetic research on humans, which took 10 years to uncover, is likely to shake the world of anthropology to its core, according to Professor Terry Turner of Cornell University, who has read the proofs.
"In its scale, ramifications, and sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history of anthropology," Prof Turner says in a warning letter to Louise Lamphere, the president of the American Anthropology Association (AAA).
The book accuses James Neel, the geneticist who headed a long-term project to study the Yanomami people of Venezuela in the mid-60s, of using a virulent measles vaccine to spark off an epidemic which killed hundreds and probably thousands.
Once the epidemic was under way, according to the book, the research team “refused to provide any medical assistance to the sick and dying Yanomami, on explicit order from Neel. He insisted to his colleagues that they were only there to observe and record the epidemic, and that they must stick strictly to their roles as scientists, not provide medical help”.
The book, Darkness in El Dorado by the investigative journalist Patrick Tierney, is due to be published on October 1. Prof Turner, whose letter was co-signed by fellow anthropologist Leslie Sponsel of the University of Hawaii, was trying to warn the AAA of the impending scandal so the profession could defend itself.
Although Neel died last February, many of his associates, some of them authors of classic anthropology texts, are still alive.