James Jeffrey Bradstreet’s life was full of controversy. To thousands of supporters, he was a savior: a physician who claimed vaccines caused autism and promoted radical procedures to treat those afflicted, including his own son.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Bradstreet’s death is proving equally divisive.
On the afternoon of June 19, a fisherman spotted Bradstreet’s lifeless body lying in the Broad River in the tiny town of Chimney Rock, N.C. He had a gunshot wound to his chest, authorities said. A gun was found in the water nearby.
That’s about all that everyone can agree on.
Like his research, Bradstreet’s death has become a Rorschach test in which his supporters see a conspiracy, while most everyone else — including law enforcement — sees a slow downward slide towards suicide.
The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office said it is investigating Bradstreet’s death, but that the wound appears to have been self-inflicted.
Bradstreet’s family, however, has set up an online account to raise funds for “an exhaustive investigation into the possibility of foul play.”
“Jeff dedicated his life’s work to finding answers, always pushing the envelope, and never giving up, even at the risk of being perceived as controversial,” wrote his niece, Cali Bradstreet Howell, on the gofundme Web site. “Now, in this moment, we find ourselves in a position, where we too are in search for answers … and we intend on finding them.”
[Disneyland measles outbreak strikes in anti-vaccination hotbed of California]
Bradstreet had been a leading voice in the anti-vaccine, or “anti-vaxxer,” movement for nearly two decades.
He was a former preacher who traded the pulpit for a physician’s gown, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post. Bradstreet received his medical degree from the University of South Florida and completed his residency at the Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center in Texas, according to a paper he wrote.
His interest in autism was as much personal as professional. He made no secret about the fact that family had been touched by the disorder. “Both [my] son and stepson have autism spectrum disorders and have experienced significant recovery as a result of intensive biomedical interventions,” he claimed.
On his blog, Bradstreet detailed the painful story of how his own son’s struggles had pushed him to study autism — and increasingly controversial therapies.
“It takes a lot of courage to face the world with autism,” he wrote in a 2012 birthday letter to his autistic son:
From an easy pregnancy and simple delivery you progressed as a sweet and happy baby boy right up until 8 months when that first ear infection struck. It didn’t want to go away easily and ultimately you needed tubes to drain the infection. Prior to that we tried a lot of antibiotics and none worked. We didn’t realize back then that you had a primary immune deficiency and couldn’t make enough IgM to defend your body.But as the National Enquirer coverage suggests, some of these treatments were salacious but scientifically iffy. (A 2012 study, for instance, found “no evidence that single or multiple dose intravenous secretin is effective” for treating autism.) Bradstreet also wrote about including his son in an intravenous immunogloblin (IVIG) trial that “made a huge difference.” But another study found IVIG only helped 10 percent of patients and “should be undertaken only with great caution.”
I can’t even talk about the next year and all the things that happened. But your mother and I had to watch our precious boy change without understanding what was happening. The first time you pulled the pans out of the kitchen cabinets and banged on them it was cute. The next 20 times it was obvious something was wrong. And then you just didn’t seem to cry when you fell and hurt yourself. I had never seen that before.
The worst part of those early years was the horrific diarrhea that would actually burn your bottom within seconds. That was so sad and so hard to treat. Back in those days we understood so little about the gut connection to autism.
Ultimately, secretin ( a simple hormone) give IV made a huge difference in that problem. It was an immediate change and even got you the attention of Bernie Rimland and the National Enquirer. Your response to secretin made you an immediate hit with about 10 million readers of the Enquirer and neither your nor my life has been the same since.
Nonetheless, his son’s case helped convince Bradstreet that vaccines caused autism. He took his message to the highest levels of government. Twice he testified about the supposed link between vaccines and autism before the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He was a very happy, well connected child prior to his MMR at approximately 12 months of age,” Bradstreet told representatives in 2002, presenting copies of his son’s various tests. “Matthew completely lost about 2 months after his MMR vaccine.”
From his clinic in Buford, Ga., Bradstreet treated patients from around the world, many who sought him out online. Desperate parents seeking answers for their children’s maladies would write to him on his blog, begging him for help.
But leading autism experts say Bradstreet was simply wrong, and that the autism therapies he espoused were “dangerous.”
“There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism,” Peter Jay Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told The Washington Post. “It is pseudoscience based on a misunderstanding of the whole neurobiology of autism.
“But there are a lot of worrying conspiracy theorists that keep on making up allegations about vaccines,” he said. “Every five years, the main variables change. I’ve seen about six iterations of this. As soon as one pseudoscience theory is debunked, someone comes up with something new.”
Hotez, who also has a child with autism, said it was understandable that Bradstreet and others sought answers to the still somewhat mysterious disorder.
“If you Google something on the Web, you can get a quick and easy fix,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s what a lot of parents do, and there is a lot of garbage on the Internet.”