By Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill
Kanner referred to those 11 children only by a first name and last initial, some accurate, some pseudonyms, some, like Richard M., amalgams. "Richard" arrived at the Johns Hopkins Hospital where Kanner practiced on February 5, 1941, age 3 years 3 months. His lack of ordinary responsiveness led his parents to believe he was deaf. He wasn't.
The next and last time we hear about Ritchey Miller, it is 1971, in a follow-up report on those first 11 children.
"After two changes of foster homes, he was placed at a State School for Exceptional Children in his home State [North Carolina] in May 1946," Kanner wrote about “Richard M.” "A report, dated June 23,1954, said: 'The institution accepted him as essentially a custodial problem; therefore, he was placed with a group of similar charges.’"
"Richard is now 33 years old. In 1965, he was transferred to another institution in the same State. The Superintendent wrote on September 29, 1970: 'At the time of admission, tranquilizers were pushed to the point of toxicity. After about 3 months, he showed some awareness of his environment and began feeding himself and going to the toilet. He is now being maintained on Compazine, 45 milligrams t.i.d.... He now resides in a cottage for older residents who can meet their own personal needs. He responds to his name and to simple commands and there is some non-verbal communication with the cottage staff. He continues to be withdrawn and cannot be involved in any structured activities.'"
Our search for Richard M. began in 2005, when we decided to try to identify the 11 children in Kanner's report. Using clues from the original paper and follow-up report, we have been able to identify eight of the 11 so far. As it happened, the first three we identified were cases one, two, and three, in that order.
The identity of Case 1, "Donald T.," yielded to a comment Kanner made in the 1970s that Donald was from Forest, Miss. A simple Internet search turned him up -- Donald Triplett in Forest, complete with street address and phone number. We subsequently visited him there, in the childhood home where he still resides. The fact that he was living happily on his own turned out to be quite a story.
Case 2, "Frederick W.," was identified because in his follow-up paper, Kanner said the child was known as "Creighton." That yielded reams of information on a distinguished family whose patriarch, Frederick Creighton Wellman, was the namesake of the child who became Case 2. The child's father, Frederick Lovejoy Wellman, was a prominent plant pathologist with the U.S. government.
Case 3, "Richard M.," was more difficult (as the rest have proved to be). We knew from Kanner's article that the father was "a forestry professor in a southern university," and that most of the 11 families were represented in Who's Who, American Men of Science, or both. We purchased a contemporary volume of the latter and scanned every entry until we came to a "William Dykstra Miller," a forestry professor at North Carolina State in Raleigh.
Several other southern forestry professors were also in the book, but using Kanner's clues we eliminated all but Miller. Still, because we couldn't locate Ritchey, the publisher of our 2010 book -- The Age of Autism -- Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic -- had us refrain from giving his actual name even though we identified the parents.
Ironically, it took his death to confirm his identity.
William Dykstra Miller
In our book, we described the Millers -- William Dykstra Miller and his wife, Catherine Ritchey Miller -- as a young and gifted couple full of energy and promise. William Miller grew up in the Northwest, attended tiny but prestigious Reed College in Portland, Oregon (Steve Jobs went there for a year and named his son Reed), then got a Ph.D. in forestry from Yale. He spoke multiple languages and later, on the side, translated scientific papers.
According to his death certificate, as mentioned above, his brother, Ritchey, died of multiple myeloma -- a cancer of the immune system, formed by malignant plasma cells in the bone marrow.
Forest, Mississippi. A plant pathologist. A forestry professor at the same southern university. A new toxic exposure that links all three and triggered the rise of autism. As autism research wandered far afield, the truth was evident in the first three cases -- confirming Occam's Razor, the axiom that the simplest explanation is usually correct.
We believe that in all three cases this exposure extended to the mother and her infant. Second-hand risks from occupational exposure to mercury – especially in excessive quantities as might arise in a laboratory setting -- are well-documented in the medical literature. Other cases in the first 11 point to risks to the mother and the child from the new diphtheria toxoid vaccination; one mother was a public health pediatrician who was part of the first well-baby clinic project at Harvard and actively promoted the shots.