Vaccine expert J. Anthony Morris dies at 95

Posted July 04, 2014, at 12:29 p.m.

WASHINGTON — J. Anthony Morris, a federal vaccine specialist who was forced into retirement after public disagreements with superior officers over the efficiency of federal vaccine programs and the effectiveness of influenza vaccines, died May 31 at a health care center in Hyattsville, Maryland. He was 95.

The cause was congestive heart failure, according to his daughter, Cam Esser.

Morris was chief vaccine officer for the Bureau of Biological Standards at the National Institutes of Health and later with the Food and Drug Administration, when the bureau was transferred to that agency in the 1970s.

He argued research carried out by his unit demonstrated there was no reliable proof that vaccines were effective in preventing influenza, and he accused the government of basing its mass vaccine programs for flu primarily on claims made by pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The issue came to a head in 1976, when President Gerald Ford signed a bill appropriating $135 million to vaccinate 140 million people against swine flu that fall and the next winter. Morris was outspoken in his opposition to the inoculations.

Subsequent events seemed to support Morris’ skepticism. The 1976 swine flu vaccinations were fraught with problems, and the government discontinued the inoculations after 49 million received the vaccine.

The incidence of swine flu among the vaccinated was seven times greater than it was among those who had not been vaccinated, according to news reports. In addition, 12 Americans who had been vaccinated against swine flu died of complications related to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a polyneuropathy affecting the peripheral nervous system. More than 200 were paralyzed, news accounts said.

The swine flu episode coincided with continuing long-term insubordination proceedings against Morris related to his disagreements within his agency over the administration of vaccines, not only flu vaccines but also polio and vaccines against the common cold.

In the early 1970s, with his lawyer, James Turner, Morris compiled a list of what they said were blunders and inefficiencies in the testing and licensing of vaccines, which he said cast doubt on their value to the public.

It was sent to Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, D-Connecticut, who headed a Senate subcommittee that had oversight of the NIH. Ribicoff made the list public. A federally appointed investigatory panel found “only a few minor irregularities” that “did not involve any risk to the public.”

The investigating panel also observed, “It is evident that there are serious personnel problems within the DBS and that the current charges are the culmination of a long series of such problems.”

The disciplinary case against Morris continued and included such accusations as failure to return library books on time, Turner said. In 1980, Morris was forced to retire but retained all retirement benefits.

After leaving federal service, Morris was self-employed as a consultant to people who had been harmed or injured by vaccine inoculations.

Joseph Anthony Morris was born Sept. 6, 1918, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. At Catholic University, he received a master’s degree and a doctorate in microbiology in the 1940s. Shortly thereafter, he began his career as a federal health officer.

He was a 65-year resident of Greenbelt, Maryland, and moved to the health care facility in Hyattsville a year and a half ago.

Survivors include his wife of 71 years, Ruth Savoy Morris of Hyattsville; four children, Cam Esser of Annandale, Virginia, Marilyn Stoughton of Columbia, Maryland, Joseph Anthony Morris Jr. of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, and Lawrence Morris of Accokeek, Maryland; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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