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

“And people blindly believe that?” asks the woman.

“Yes. That’s correct. People blindly believe that.”

During a couple stretches in Offit’s spiel, I let my eyes wander around the room, and at some point it hits me that if I were an anti-vaccine crusader, I’d basically be staring out at my own personal vision of what the Devil’s corner office might look like. This is where all the truly evil shit is supposed to happen. Ivy League doctors! In actual tweed jackets! With actual elbow patches! Drinking wine! Scheming, in secret, to screw over the People! But in fact, the dominant vibe here isn’t exultation or condescension. It’s more like rank bewilderment. It’s fear. After Offit’s done speaking, I interview a guy who researches autism. He’s waiting in line to get an autograph from Offit, and while he waits, he holds Offit’s book in a weird way — horizontally, with one hand flattened on top and one hand supporting it from the bottom, like the book’s a pancake he’s trying to flatten. He tells me, “Oh yes. I know all of the people in this book very well. [Offit] helps me to be a little less angry at the people in this book. Who are very difficult.” He looks me straight in the eye. “It’s important that you’re writing this story,” he says. “We’re struggling to keep the society sane.”

OFFIT IS MOSTLY quiet on the ride home from the party. The only sound for miles is the GPS navigator, issuing directions in a metallic coo. At one point, Offit half whispers, to himself, “They should have, like, a life GPS system. ‘Take the job in New York.’ ‘Get the biopsy.’ ‘The biopsy is … malignant.’”

Finally, when we’re almost back in Philly, Offit says, “I feel like I become a vaccine performance artist, you know? You feel like you’re part of a show. A show. Because you want to convince people about the data, but the data first of all don’t speak for themselves, and secondly, I think the more entertaining and fun and exciting you make it, the more it’s accepted.”

The bridge tiles thump underneath us as we cross the Ben Franklin.

“I think for all my protests, not wanting to be anything like my father, in terms of selling men’s shirts, I think that’s what I’ve become,” Offit says. “A salesman.”

This is fine, though. Because the better Offit sells the science, the more time he can spend actually applying the science. The sooner he slays the quacks, the quicker he can get back to slaying the germs, back at CHOP, where he’s most comfortable, where he has an easy mastery. Where he can sit in his office, as he did in late December, and discuss with his colleagues the vagaries of methicillin-resistant staph infections and the intransigence of pseudomonas and the effectiveness of Clindamycin versus Cipro in the IV drip of one particular kid on the ward — and then, after discussing the battle plan, he can go out and survey the battlefield and see the carnage. He can see his patients healing and getting better. Offit moved through CHOP with speed that day, in khakis and a dark fleece. It was almost Christmas, and the hospital was full of color and light, pinks and yellows and greens and ­purples — “Isn’t this amazing? These rooms? They’re full of windows, they’re so bright” — and the kids had made these cute thank-you notes to their nurses that lined the walls (“YOU’VE DONE A TREE-MENDOUS JOB!”) and Offit was happy, you could tell, because for one afternoon, at least, the humans were all on the same page, and evil was pretty clearly defined, and we were not the evil ones, and we were winning.