By Teresa Conrick, Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
Her real name: Vivian Ann Murdock. Born in 1931, Vivian was placed in a Maryland institution at age 6 and died in a state-run home in 1987, age 56. She was the daughter of a prominent Baltimore psychiatrist, Harry M. Murdock, and his wife, Margaret.
The Rosewood State Training School, Owings Mills, MD Stuart Dahne Photography
The key to finding her real name was the recent online publication of the 1940 U.S. Census – allowing one of us (Teresa) to test her hunch about the institution to which"Virginia" had been committed as a child: The Rosewood School in Owings Mills. The hunch was correct; the Census listed an "Inmate" there named Vivian Murdock, age 8 in 1940, who we conclusively identified as "Virginia S."
-- the first use of mercury-preserved vaccines in Baltimore -- a drive to vaccinate every infant with those shots began the month she was born;
-- her parents' avocation of orchid growing and breeding, which required intensive application of chemicals including mercury;
-- and her father’s psychiatric career, which brought him – and probably his family through second-hand exposure – in contact with mercury treatments for a common form of insanity.
Mercury is no longer used in agriculture or mental health treatment. But each year, 100 million children worldwide get vaccines containing thimerosal, the ethylmercury preservative first used in those shots in Baltimore. In the United States, flu shots, most of which contain mercury, are recommended for pregnant women and for infants beginning at 6 months of age.
Our research on Vivian and the other first cases of autism suggests that is a very bad idea.
Vivian’s identity also offers insight into how the damaging idea of “refrigerator parents” – supposedly cold and neglectful mothers and fathers responsible for causing their children's disorder -- got its start. We will explain these clues and conclusions in detail, but first the basics about the discovery of Vivian Murdock.
Seventy years ago this month, in April 1943, a psychiatry journal called The Nervous Child published an article titled “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact.” Written by Leo Kanner, a Johns Hopkins child psychiatrist who is widely considered the founder of the field, it begins
We began our hunt with Kanner’s original 1943 "Autistic Disturbances" report and a follow-up paper he wrote in 1971. (In the latter paper, he slipped once and referred to “Virginia S.” by what we now know is her real first name, Vivian.) In “Autistic Disturbances,” he quoted a psychologist noting that Virginia “could respond to sounds, the calling of her name, and the command, ‘Look!’
“She pays no attention to what is said to her,” the psychologist said, “but quickly comprehends whatever is expected. Her performance reflects discrimination, care, and precision. … She is quiet, solemn, composed. Not once have I seen her smile. She retires within herself, segregating herself from others. She seems to be in a world of her own …”
But what was responsible for this strange behavioral syndrome? It was clear Kanner found Vivian’s parents lacking; what is surprising is they did, too. Kanner wrote: “Virginia, the younger of two siblings, was the daughter of a psychiatrist, who said of himself (in December 1941): ‘I have never liked children, probably a reaction on my part to the restraint from movement (travel), the minor interruptions and commotions.’”
Of his wife, the father said: “She is not by any means the mother type. Her attitude [toward a child] is more like toward a doll or pet than anything else.” When Vivian’s older brother, "Philip," was interviewed at Hopkins, he burst into tears. “The only time my father has ever had anything to do with me was when he scolded me for doing something wrong.”
“His mother,” Kanner reported, “did not contribute even that much. He felt that all his life he had lived in a ‘frosty’ atmosphere with two inapproachable strangers.” Philip had a stutter that in the circumstances must have been viewed as psychological as well. That emotionally “frosty” image would haunt autism parents for decades; to the extent that it placed responsibility for autism within the family unit, rather than outside in toxic exposures, it arguably still does.
At the end of his 1943 report, and with Vivian’s parents no doubt top of mind, Kanner wrote: “One other fact stands out prominently. In the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers. For the most part, the parents, grandparents and collaterals are persons strongly preoccupied with abstractions of a scientific, literary, or artistic nature, and limited in genuine interest in people.”
Within a few short years, Kanner was calling the mothers and fathers of autistic children “refrigerator parents,” claiming that must have something to do with the genesis of the baffling disorder. Time magazine wrote in 1960 that “Kanner has sometimes written of the 'refrigerator' type of parent...highly intelligent, organized, professional parents, cold and rational...who just happened to defrost long enough to produce a child.”
Vivian did not marry or have children. But we located and spoke with her three nieces and nephews – Tim, Laurie, and James -- all of whom were surprised to learn of her role in the history of autism. Their father, Vivian's brother “Philip” in the 1943 study, is Bruce P. Murdock, who now lives in a Baltimore retirement home and was not able to be interviewed.
“Do you know who my grandfather was?” Tim asked, describing Harry Murdock’s long tenure as medical director of the Sheppard Pratt mental hospital, which still occupies a sprawling, manicured campus just north of Baltimore, adjoining Towson State. A behavioral health non-profit, it has 2,500 employees and 33 programs in 11 counties.
The Murdock grandchildren knew of Vivian’s existence, but few details. Tim Murdock said he knew she had been institutionalized from an early age; he believed she was mentally handicapped; his father seldom spoke of her, and he did not know she had died until we told him. James says he learned of her in the 1980s, when he and his wife were about to have their first child; his father was worried about a family predisposition to having a mentally handicapped child.
“The strong connection in my mind is the connection between plant pathology,” Tim Murdock told us, speaking of the Murdocks and the Wellmans. “I know for a fact my grandfather developed a strain for a particular orchid. My father was always saying how my grandfather and his mother galloped in the greenhouse nude developing all this orchid stuff. There's all kinds of mercury connections" in the chemicals used to breed and raise orchids, he said. Sister Laurie also remembered the orchids, and the chemicals.
Harry Murdock and his wife spent hours in the large greenhouse in the back yard of their residence, a stately home called Auburn House on the Sheppard Pratt grounds. (It is now the Towson State athletic director's office.) According to James, the greenhouse was around 20 by 40 feet, about 80 feet from the house. He remembers “a rain forest” atmosphere inside, and recalls putting his nose close to smell the flowers. When his grandparents moved to a private home off the Sheppard Pratt grounds, they had another orchid house, this one above the garage, accessible from the kitchen through a foyer.
"During the year the Department began the distribution of diphtheria toxoid on a large scale," the 1931 report said. "In May, we began the distribution of this product in individual packages to physicians. On October 1 the Bureau of Child Welfare began the use of diphtheria toxoid exclusively in all their clinics."
That means the bureau abandoned the older formulations completely in favor of the new mercury-preserved diphtheria toxoid shots, right when Vivian was born.
At the same time, the Health Department began an annual drive to inoculate all infants against diphtheria at six months of age. The Director of Health wrote, ""Diphtheria is one of the most preventable of diseases. If each child in the city could receive two doses of toxoid a month apart, shortly after the age of six months, this scourge of childhood would rapidly disappear. It is the hope of the Health Department, with the assistance of the medical profession and cooperating civic groups, to eradicate diphtheria from Baltimore."
So in 1931, "During the months of August and September [Vivian was born August 29], the Health Department conducted a diphtheria immunization campaign in which a large number of pre-school children were immunized against diphtheria."
That means the first child with autism was born the same month a campaign to inject all infants with mercury-containing shots was launched, and local physicians were called on to help.
Vivian, daughter of a doctor, turned six months old in February 1932, the right age for the new shot. By the end of that year, about a quarter of Baltimore children had gotten the injections, and "by the end of the year 1933 it is estimated that 31.3 per cent of children under five years of age have received the required inoculations of toxoid." Vivian Murdock likely was among them.
As we wrote in The Age of Autism, speculating on where we might eventually find “Virginia S.”: “She was born just in time to be caught up in the early wave of diphtheria vaccination in Baltimore or New York or Boston or another early-adopter location.” Indeed she was. (Another of the first 11 cases we've identified was the daughter of a public health pediatrician who actively campaigned for early childhood vaccinations -- "in the case of diphtheria, booster shots are extremely important," she told the Annapolis PTA. Three more of the 11 children were infants in Baltimore in the early 1930s as the mercury-containing shots became universal.)
Four of the first 11 fathers were psychiatrists. While some have said this points to "selection bias" -- meaning psychiatrists would have been likelier to get help for a child with a strange new affliction than typical parents -- that is just speculation. One thing is certain: It had nothing to do with the way Virginia was discovered.
No wonder she seemed absolutely different. She was the earliest known case of a brand-new disorder.
It is not hard to see how the “refrigerator parents” image got its start with Vivian's family: the parents by the father’s own account were less than attentive to their children; the brother had his own grievances and disability; the father was a leading psychiatrist at a posh private mental hospital who "dumped" -- Kanner's word -- his 6-year-old daughter into a public institution for the mentally handicapped.
And Rosewood was, even by the standards of seven decades ago, a hellhole. "About one-fourth of the patient body at Rosewood consists of custodial cases," according to a 1946 report; Vivian would have been one of them. "Most of these are individuals with mentality of infant level or lower. All any institution could do for them is to provide adequate care and reasonably pleasant surroundings.
"However, Rosewood fails even in this respect. Instead these unfortunates are herded together into huge basement 'playrooms'; the total effect of the smell, sight and sounds of Rosewood's Hill Cottage can be guaranteed to produce revulsion and often nausea into anyone viewing it for the first time."
That was bad enough. But there is another, more personal reason Kanner might have loathed anyone who committed a relative to Rosewood. In 1937 – just a year before he saw his first autism case – Kanner delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Pittsburgh. Titled “Habeas Corpus Releases of Feebleminded Persons and Their Consequences,” it recounted his own investigation into the scandalous treatment of patients at the Maryland State Training School for the Feebleminded – Rosewood.
Ksnner discovered that many of them, especially young women, had been sent over a period of two decades to live with families that treated them as little better than indentured servants. (And probably worse.) The school, with judges’ consent, released 166 such patients between 1911 and 1933, all but 15 of them females. “The Maryland Courts,” Kanner wrote with contempt, “were allowed to function as employment agencies for domestic servants."
Kanner’s expose made headlines in the local papers and quickly brought an end to the practice. So when he came upon Vivian there just five years later, that could have strengthened his dislike for the parents. Not for the last time, it may have led him to overlook a much more dangerous “environmental” risk in the child's early life – toxic substances.
That’s impossible to say, of course. But we do know mercury can cause a condition called erethism, characterized by behavior changes such as irritability and excessive shyness; it was known to afflict people who worked too long around mercury vapor. This might explain Kanner's observations of others among the original families as well. The father of “Alfred L.”, he wrote, “does not get along well with people, is suspicious, easily hurt, easily roused to anger, has to be dragged out to visit friends, spends his spare time reading, gardening, fishing.” That father was a lawyer at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington – and a chemist by training.
What became of Vivian? In Leo Kanner’s 1971 follow-up paper on the first cases of autism, he wrote: “Virginia will be 40 years old next September. She has been transferred to the Henryton State Hospital. ‘She is,’ the report from there, dated November 2, 1970, says, ‘in a program for adult retardates, with her primary rehabilitation center being the Home Economics Section. She can hear and is able to follow instructions and directions. She can identify colors and can tell time.
So what might this new, if still unfinished, portrait of “Virginia S.” as Vivian Ann Murdock tell us about autism?
This risk has now spread worldwide and probably includes other sources of mercury and other vaccine ingredients, such as aluminum, another toxic metal used as an immune stimulant in vaccines.
But from the very first, we believe, the link between mercury and autism has been there to see, hidden in plain sight in those first 11 cases. Public health officials in the United States and around the world need to look at the evidence again, this time with open eyes and a healthy respect for the precautionary principle. That should be the real legacy of Vivian Murdock, the first child of the Age of Autism.
Teresa Conrick, Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill are Contributing Editor, Editor, and Editor at Large of AgeOfAutism.com. Olmsted and Blaxill are co-authors of The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epdemic , published in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books. Thank you to Stuart Dahne Photopraphy for the use of the photograph of Rosewood.