The Age of Autism: Ground Zero



This column has long made the controversial case that autism had a
beginning, a "big bang" if you will. That moment was 1930 -- no U.S. cases
before then fully match the classic description of the disorder. Now let's
take the next logical step: Not only did autism have a big bang, it also
had a ground zero -- a place where many of the first cases concentrated
before the disorder exploded nationwide. Ground zero was the nation's
capital, in particular the Maryland suburbs where cutting-edge government
research in the 1930s and 1940s exposed families to the chemical that first
triggered the baffling disorder.

The foundation of this argument was laid out in the most recent Age of
Autism column, "Mercury link to Case 2." Case 2 was known only as Frederick
W., but we identified him as the son of a prominent plant pathologist named
Frederick L. Wellman. At the time "Frederick W." was born, we showed, the
senior Wellman was doing advanced work at the U.S. Agriculture Department's
Beltsville research center in suburban Maryland, just outside the nation '
s capital. Wellman was experimenting with plant fungi and ways to kill
them, and his extensive archive makes clear one compound he studied was
ethyl mercury fungicide -- the exact kind also used in the controversial
vaccine preservative thimerosal, which many parents blame for the recent
rise in reported cases (mainstream experts say it has been ruled out as a

Ethyl mercury in both vaccines and fungicides was pioneered and patented in
the 1920s through the work of Morris S. Kharasch. When Kharasch filed the
first relevant patents, he was a chemistry professor at the University of
Maryland in College Park, which actually adjoins the Beltsville research

More links to Washington are evident in other early cases described in 1943
by Johns Hopkins University child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who first
diagnosed the disorder in Frederick W. and 10 other children born in the
1930s. Reading between the lines of his landmark 1943 paper, the very first
autistic child seen at Hopkins (in 1935) was "Alfred L.," whose father was
a lawyer and chemist at the U.S. Patent Office. Also a clear connection to
newly patented chemicals, the federal government and the nation ' s
capital. A child later profiled by Kanner was named Gary T. "Gary
originally lived in Philadelphia," Kanner wrote in 1951. "The family then
moved to Greenbelt, to Chicago, and back to Greenbelt." Take a look at
Greenbelt, Md.: It also abuts the Beltsville agricultural center in the
Washington suburbs.

Recently, a mutual friend in Washington introduced me to a 58-year-old man
with Asperger's disorder, the milder version of autism. We got together for
lunch, and when I asked where in the Washington area he lived, I was both
startled and somehow not surprised: Riverdale, Md. That's another
Washington suburb that clusters with the College Park-Beltsville-Greenbelt
dots I was already plotting. What's more, he was born there in 1948 in the
same house he lives in now.

I asked what his father did. He told me he was an engineer. That fits a
stereotype of Asperger's affecting kids of scientists and engineers -- the
so-called "geek syndrome," nerdy brainiacs hooking up to somehow spawn a
generation of kids with "autism lite." I asked him what kind of engineer
his father was. The answer: a mechanical engineer who tested guns for the
Navy at the time he was born. And where was that? At what is now the Naval
Surface Warfare Center in White Oak, Md. -- just a hop and a skip across
I-95 from the Beltsville agriculture center.

I already had come across his father's line of work. In a 1972 paper,
Kanner talked about a child named "Walter P.," born in June 1944. His
father, too, was "an ordnance engineer for the federal government." Kanner
didn't say where Walter P. was from, but the similarity makes me wonder.
Mercury fulminate was widely used as a detonator for explosives and
armaments. Could those two fathers, like Frederick W., be linked to
cutting-edge research involving mercury? (My Riverdale acquaintance said
his father sometimes brought containers of mercury home from the weapons
center for the kids to play with.)

And is that kind of research a reason Leo Kanner, at Johns Hopkins in
nearby Baltimore, started seeing cases of this "markedly and uniquely"
different disorder in the 1930s and 1940s? Just last week I got an e-mail
from the mother of a child with autism who lives on the other side of the
country; her son was born nowhere near what I'm calling ground zero. But as
I outlined this idea to her, she had a shock of recognition:

"I lived on a farm in Burtonsville, Md., while young and it is near
Beltsville. The farm was surrounded by forest and abutted the Patuxent
River." Of course, not all the early cases cluster this way. But of the two
other original "Kanner kids" from his 1943 paper that I ' ve been able to
identify along with Frederick W., one grew up in a town called Forest,
Miss., a center of timber farming and planting; the other was the son of a
forestry professor at North Carolina State University. Ethyl mercury
fungicides were used to treat seeds, saplings and lumber in the 1930s, and
in both places (as well as in Beltsville) the newly launched Civilian
Conservation Corps was hard at work planting trees, cutting timber and
building things with it. To sum up: The first cases of autism seem to
radiate outward from a central point -- as big bangs tend to do. As those
exposures expanded, so did autism.

This suggests a new and deeply disturbing truth about the Age of Autism:
our fate is not in our genes, Dear Brutus, but in the chemicals that
increasingly pollute our world and our children.