Will This Doctor Hurt Your Baby?

Thanks to celebrity anti-vaccine crusaders like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Children’s Hospital doctor and vaccine inventor Paul Offit gets death threats from parents frantic about autism — and worse. He’s had enough. He’s taking his critics on

But when Offit tries to explain his logic here, he doesn’t get a lot of sympathy. His enemies want to impose a virgin-whore dichotomy on science: Either a scientist is a pure truth-seeker, or he’s a corporate slut, a “biostitute,” and there’s nothing in between. To Offit, this is silly, and you don’t have to think that Offit is a good person to agree. Just look at Maurice Ralph Hilleman’s career — the ultimate refutation of the idea that a scientist who works with a drug company is therefore evil. As much as one man can save the world, Hilleman did. In 1900, the life span of an average American was 49 years. Today it’s 78 years. That’s in large part because of vaccines — Hilleman’s vaccines. And yet by the time Offit really got to know Hilleman well, in 2004, the great man was dying, along with his legacy. Vaccination rates were dropping. Some people were more afraid of the vaccines than of the diseases, more skeptical of scientists than of microbes.

Hilleman was saddened and confused by this trend. On a snowy day toward the end of Hilleman’s life, Offit asked him, “Do you think we can stop this? Are people going to have to die?” Hilleman, struggling to breathe, said, “Yes.”

“Maurice was right a lot,” Offit says.

OFFIT SHARES HILLEMAN’S cynicism about the likelihood of coming plagues. But he’s not dark or sphinxy like Hilleman was. His default mode is bemusement. Sometimes when you talk to Offit, he has this look like he’s scanning your words for wisecrack material. A reporter asked him once if he was the Antichrist, and he replied, “I’m just one of the Devil’s many humble servants.” Offit’s favorite TV show is Fox’s Family Guy, which is like a raunchier version of The Simpsons — a screwball cartoon about an infantile, obese suburban dad. Offit once asked me if I had ever seen The Ruling Class, a Peter O’Toole movie from 1972 in which O’Toole plays a character with “the mental age of a five-year-old,” Offit said. “He moves from this very playful, childlike demeanor to a much smarter, more formal businessman, and although he’s more functional in the adult world, you watch this transformation come about, and you feel sad.”

Offit’s own personal arc has been a little like this, a process of gradual emergence from one world, sort of a protected and safe world — the world of science — into another world with utterly different rules. And what’s remarkable about Offit is that he’s interested in the process of this. He’s willing to make his thought process so transparent that you can see his logic circuits whirring in real time, as he’s trying to think about how to remain a good and respected scientist while also being a good public communicator who Changes Minds and Saves Lives, and without becoming what he never wanted to be, which is a salesman, or a bullshitter.

Offit grew up with bullshitters, see. He grew up in Baltimore, the son of a tough Jew who made and sold men’s shirts for a living, and Offit remembers going to his father’s sales meetings. They were full of these amazing characters who lived by their wits and filled the air with their chaotic jokes and tales — “I mean, I loved them, they made you want to be around them, because they were such great storytellers” — but all the same, “They were just, you know, bullshitters.” Science was the opposite of that meeting room. It was “pure and clean-lined and symmetrical,” and “The rules are clear.”