It is with sadness that I have to report the death of Pierre Doupagne, the former technical assistant at the Laboratoire Medical de Stanleyville, (LMS) in the Belgian Congo. He died peacefully in hospital in Liege, Belgium, on October 24th, 2008. He was 85 years old.
Although he was not one of the four doctors based at the LMS in the latter half of the 1950s, Pierre Doupagne was the man whose skills underpinned their work – and in the end he played a significant part in the origins of AIDS debate that began some 40 years later.
Pierre began working at the LMS in 1949, the same year that Ghislain Courtois took over as director. Both men spent the next decade in that laboratory; Courtois leaving in order to take over the main Leopoldville lab in late 1959, and Doupagne staying on until May 1960, after which he worked at the lab in Elisabethville, Katanga; (Katanga province had seceded from the newly-independent Congo in July 1960). Pierre left Elisabethville after a year, and from 1961 to 1985 worked for CIBA Geigy, first in Africa, then in Turkey and finally in France and Switzerland, where he was apparently in charge of the Africa desk.
Despite his lack of a medical degree, Pierre was in many ways the backbone of the LMS, the man on whose careful work all the other research and medical procedures depended. He was well-liked by his colleagues, and well-respected for the care and precision of his laboratory technique. As the years went by the director, Courtois, used to spend less and less time in the lab, but he would find new procedures described in articles and books, and then ask Pierre to reproduce them in the laboratory. Pierre normally succeeded.
From 1956 onwards, Pierre worked especially closely with Paul Osterrieth, who had been appointed to head the new LMS department of virology. The official opening of the virology department occurred when the new LMS buildings were inaugurated at the beginning of the Symposium on Viral Diseases in Central Africa, which was staged in September-October 1957, but in reality some of the labs in the new building had been in use since around July 1956, when Osterrieth first arrived at the lab. There was then something of a hiatus, for Doupagne was on leave from January to August 1957, and Osterrieth then set off on leave from July 1957 to February 1958. The Virus Department moved back into top gear upon the arrival of the German/American hepatitis (and tissue culture) specialist, Fritz Deinhardt, and the return of Paul Osterrieth, both of which occurred at the start of February 1958.
During the initial hour or so of our first interview in 1993, Pierre Doupagne was helpful and forthcoming. Then came a phone call from Andre Courtois, son of the late Dr Courtois, after which Pierre was suddenly loath to speak further. Shortly after this Pierre was involved in organising a meeting of the former workers of the LMS (the first such meeting in nearly 35 years) which took place in Liege. Years afterwards, Pierre told me that one of the main reasons for that meeting (instigated by Jozef Vandepitte, who was interim director during Courtois’ leave in March to September 1958) was to discuss the “Hooper problem”, and the fact that I was interviewing the surviving members of the LMS to ask about the polio work that had been conducted there, and especially about the experimental procedures that had been carried out with CHAT, an experimental oral polio vaccine (OPV) developed by the Polish-American scientist, Hilary Koprowski. The Liege meeting had been attended by Vandepitte, Doupagne, Andre Courtois, Paul Osterrieth, Dr Van Oye (a former inspector of hygiene for the Belgian Congo), and reportedly one other. I have been told that the former histopathologist, Gaston Ninane (who took over Osterrieth’s job during his 1957-8 leave) was the only significant non-attendee, apart from the LMS pharmacist, Paulette Dherte, who was then living in Brazil.
Despite the collapse of the 1993 interview, I always felt that Pierre Doupagne was an honest man. I sent him a copy of The River when it came out in 1999, and when I next went to see him in 2002, he was full of praise for the book. Our interview lasted almost the entire day, and about half-way through it Pierre suddenly confirmed what I had already heard from his one-time assistant, Philippe Elebe, in Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville). He admitted that at least some of the tissue cultures that had been prepared at the LMS had been made from chimpanzees. Pierre told me that on perhaps 2 or 3 occasions he had made chimpanzee tissue culture and had given it to Osterrieth and Ninane, “to do what with, I do not know”. At the end of the day I pressed him about how often this procedure had happened, and he whispered that it had gone on “for a long time”. But when I asked Doupagne for what purposes Osterrieth had used the tissue culture, he clammed up. “It is difficult”, he told me. “Paul Osterrieth is my friend.”
(The use of chimpanzee tissue culture for making CHAT polio vaccine had been admitted three times in a minute by Gaston Ninane during our first interview in 1992. But then Ninane suddenly realised the import of what he was saying with respect to my questions about the origins of AIDS and he backtracked, claiming that they had actually used tissue culture from singes, or monkeys, of which species he was unsure. In French, singes means primates: that is monkeys and apes alike.)
I saw Pierre Doupagne again in 2004, shortly after The Origins of AIDS documentary film came out, but on that occasion he was unwell, and I left after speaking with him for just a few minutes. During the next 4 years, my main contact with him was through a mutual friend, Georges Hensenne, the former editor of the main Stanleyville newspaper, Le Stanleyvillois. (Georges had written to me after seeing the film in 2003, and over the next 5 years we met several times, and he proved to be a kind and enormously helpful source of information.) Significantly, Georges told me that during their conversations together Pierre had never wavered about the fact that he had made chimpanzee tissue culture at the LMS, but equally he would never say what Osterrieth had used the tissue culture for. On the latter subject, he would effectively decline to answer.
In January 2007 Paul Osterrieth died, and Pierre attended the funeral. The reports that I later received about this significant occasion indicate that it was attended by Koprowski’s deputy, Stanley Plotkin (who had by then taken charge of the attempt to disprove the link between pandemic AIDS and LMS-made CHAT), by at least one other of Plotkin’s collaborators (perhaps Dirk Teuwen; see below), and by a large number of Belgian academics and freemasons.
It seems that Stanley Plotkin (who was reportedly quite condescending to some of the Belgian doctors during the 1950s) is nowadays keen to attend their funerals, and then to celebrate them as “public health heroes”. What he may actually be celebrating is that there is now one fewer witness for him and his former boss, Hilary Koprowski, to worry about. Unfortunately for him, I have re-interviewed most of these crucial witnesses during their final years, and have done so on film.
It was due to George Hensenne’s good offices that I learnt in July 2008 that Pierre would be happy to see me once more. About a week later, Georges and I visited Pierre at his apartment, together with a friend of mine who recorded the brief meeting on video. During this meeting, Pierre (who was now extremely frail, but whose mind was still alert) clarified and expanded upon what he had told me previously about the tissue culture he had made at the LMS. Pierre appeared to have made a decision that he could now be more forthright with me, and he said what he wanted to say clearly and without hesitation.
A few days after this Pierre fell and broke a hip, and was admitted to hospital. I kept in contact, and learned that he would welcome another visit from me. With a different friend, I flew back to Belgium in September 2008, sadly on the very same morning that Georges Hensenne died. We waited two days for a suitable moment to talk with Pierre, and when we spoke it was for just ten or fifteen minutes. But now Pierre made a significant additional statement about what had happened at the LMS, a statement that once again was filmed. I shall reveal more about this when the time is right.
Pierre Doupagne’s death marks the end of an era. He was both a kind and a shrewd man, but more importantly, he was a man of integrity….a man who revealed the truth about the events at the Stanleyville lab, even while his medical colleagues were afraid to do so. (During our later interviews, Gaston Ninane always began giggling nervously when the subject of the origin of AIDS came up. By contrast, during my second and last interview with Paul Osterrieth, he became hostile, and began denying key aspects of what he had told me previously, a course that he would continue to pursue for the following 12 years.)
I know for a fact that Pierre Doupagne was in a moral dilemma about these matters during the final years of his life. I believe that his natural instinct was to tell the truth about what had happened, but he was also well aware of the huge impact that telling the truth would make. He understood, for instance that this information could have a huge political and financial impact in certain quarters.
When the rest of this story is told, Pierre will be recognised and celebrated for what he was – a man who was a witness to (and sometimes a participant in) crucially important events, but also a man who was, at the end of the day, courageous and honest.
Pierre Doupagne is survived by one son and four grandchildren.
I was not the only visitor to Pierre Doupagne who was interested in what had happened at the LMS back in the 1950s. In late 1999 or early 2000 Dr Dirk Teuwen, a Belgian scientist who was then based at the main lab of that huge pharmaceutical house, Aventis Pasteur, in Lyons, was hired by Stanley Plotkin (then the managing director of Aventis Pasteur) to help him counteract the OPV/AIDS theory and the impact of The River. Dr Teuwen has continued working for Plotkin ever since, and his main job seems to be to track down and make contact with as many as possible of those witnesses to the 1950s events in Stanleyville, notably those whom I have previously interviewed. It now seems clear that Dirk Teuwen’s role in the Plotkin group’s plans is to be kindly and concerned and talkative with these witnesses, and to try to win their trust.
Teuwen has also played an active role in the attempts by the Plotkin group and Michael Worobey to obtain a group of ancient tissue samples from the 1950s that were found in the basement of the old LMS building. Intriguingly, he is cited as co-author on Worobey’s latest phylogenetic dating paper, in which Worobey claims that the finding of HIV-1 in a 1960 tissue sample allegedly taken from the Belgian Congo capital of Leopoldville (which was also vaccinated with CHAT) means that the AIDS epidemic actually began in or around 1908. See the accompanying essay, HIV-1 in 1908? Another sad comedy of errors from Michael Worobey , for my comments on Worobey’s latest paper. Since Teuwen’s only known role of relevance to Worobey’s paper has been facilitating access to the Stanleyville samples, one wonders why he has been cited as a co-author in this paper about an ancient sample from Leopoldville.
Despite his apparent kindliness, Dr Teuwen is not universally liked or respected. I know this because some of those whom he has approached have later reported back to me about their meetings. He has shown an especially strong interest in trying to persaude these witnesses to modify or change key aspects of the accounts that they have previously given me. In the past, the Plotkin group has claimed, without supporting evidence, that certain doctors and other witnesses from Belgium, and from the Congo, have later denied saying what they had previously told me on tape, and it is believed that Dirk Teuwen is the source of most of these unsupported claims. [*See also the asterisked section below.]
I discovered in July 2008 that Dirk Teuwen had been in contact with Pierre Doupagne for at least four years, although Teuwen did not visit Pierre during the final months of his life. Before he died I spoke with Pierre about Dr Teuwen, so it will be interesting to see if Teuwen (or anyone else from the Plotkin group) makes any retrospective claims about Pierre Doupagne now that he is no longer with us.
What I have learnt in the past few days is that Pierre Doupagne’s funeral was attended both by Dr Teuwen and by Dr Andre Courtois, and that at least one person came under pressure from those doctors to cooperate with them. It seems that the pattern continues.
Ed Hooper. 7th November 2008.
*An aside. One good example of such alleged but dubious denials, which may or may not have involved Dirk Teuwen, was the statement that Dr Gaston Ninane of the LMS allegedly made to members of the Plotkin group in February 2000, three months before his death, at a time when he was apparently in hospital following a fall caused by his Parkinson’s disease. In his Invited Article in “Clinical Infectious Diseases” (2001; 32; 1068-1084), Plotkin claimed that Ninane had signed a statement stating that “I never tried to make cell cultures in Stanleyville….The statements that are attributed to me on this subject are false and are lies (author [ie Plotkin’s] translation)”. This is an interesting claim, given that Ninane told me several times (recorded on tape) that he had tried to make cell cultures in Stanleyville. It is worth noting that even the Royal Society (which otherwise proved to be fairly craven in bowing to Plotkin’s and Koprowski’s demands by adding an extra “Postscript” by Plotkin, Teuwen, Prinzie and Desmyter to the published proceedings of the Royal Society meeting – a postscript which promoted Plotkin’s heavily accented and, in many proven instances, false version of events) baulked at publishing the final sentence of this claimed statement by Ninane as part of Plotkin’s article in the Royal Society proceedings, on the grounds that it was potentially libellous. I am reliably informed that doctors Plotkin and Koprowski had never seen or contacted Gaston Ninane between the time that he helped them with their polio experiments in the 1950s and the time that they flew across from the US to see him in his hospital bed in Belgium in February 2000. This did not prevent Plotkin from co-dedicating his Royal Society article to Ninane, whom he described as an “old [warrior] in the fight against polio”. It is also worth noting that the original letters which Plotkin promised in his Royal Society “Postscript” in 2001 to deposit at one of two libraries in Leuven and Philadelphia had, at the last time of enquiry, still not been deposited there, even though Plotkin has twice been reminded of this promise by Brian Martin, a fellow speaker at the Royal Society meeting. Other requests for copies of Plotkin’s and Koprowski’s documents have simply gone unanswered. Taken together, this information raises questions about whether all the documents and letters that are claimed by these two men and their collaborators actually exist.