Vaccine critics often claim that criticism of public health measures is being suppressed because scientists who speak out against them have been fired from their jobs. In the mid-1970s, John Anthony Morris, Ph.D., portrayed himself as a victim on the Donahue show and in many newspaper articles. Morris was a GS-14 supervisory research microbiologist in the FDA Bureau of Biologics. He spoke out against the swine flu program, and the FDA fired him shortly afterward. But—as I found out—these facts were not actually connected.
In March 1977, an article in Parade Magazine portrayed Morris as a competent and courageous scientist who was abruptly fired for claiming that the swine flu vaccine was ineffective and dangerous . I was suspicious of this story because (a) Morris’s attorney, James Turner, was closely tied to the National Health Federation, a quackery-promoting group that opposed immunization and (b) the article did not include a response by the FDA. When I contacted the FDA, they sent me thousands of pages of hearings transcripts and other documents related to Morris’s firing. They also sent a detailed letter which said that Morris had been fired because, for several years, his research had been “so poorly conducted as to preclude drawing any valid conclusions from the results” and that he had been “so insubordinate as to make it impossible to correct his deficiencies and monitor his work.”  The documents I received included the FDA’s form-letter response to Congressional Inquires:
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, EDUCATION, AND WELFARE
FORM LETTER USED TO RESPOND TO CONGRESSIONAL
Contrary to news stories which have appeared recently, Dr. Morris was not separated because of his statements on the swine influenza program. The action to separate Dr. Morris was initiated for other reasons long before the program of national inoculation against swine influenza ever surfaced. As you may recall, swine flu became a point of national concern between February 14, and March 24, 1976, after swine flu was diagnosed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey. The notice to Dr. Morris of intention to terminate him was issued July 11, 1975. The events and reasons leading up to Dr. Morris’ separation date back to 1972.
A great many things could be said about the reasons for separating Dr. Morris, but we believe it would be better to share with you the actual documentation involved. Although such documentation would normally be held by the Food and Drug Administration as privileged information, Dr. Morris has himself released statements concerning this issue and therefore, the memoranda are publicly available. Enclosed are three documents. The first is the initial letter to Dr. Morris dated July 11, 1975 advising him of intention to separate. Dr. Morris appealed that decision, and consistent with his rights as a Federal employee, he was given both an opportunity to meet with the Commissioner, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and a full hearing before a hearing examiner. The report of that hearing examiner, dated May 24, is also appended. The third document is a copy of the Commissioner’s decision dated July 12, 1976, and issued after receiving the report of the hearing examiner.
If you will look at the dates that are involved on each document, you will note that the decision was not made hastily, nor was the action against Dr. Morris concluded in a very brief period of time. In fact, in response to Dr. Morris’ request for an ”outside” review of his research program, the FDA requested its Advisory Panel on the Review of Viral Vaccines and Rickettsial Vaccines (made up of outstanding scientists from outside the Federal Government) to undertake such a review.
That review took several months and included open meetings at which Dr. Morris and his attorney were present and participated. The Panel found that in many cases his research was poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly executed. The Panel concluded that Dr. Morris’ research was wasteful of Government resources. A copy of the complete transcript of those meetings and the Panel’s report are available for public review in FDA’s Public Records and Documents Center.
We believe Dr. Morris was given a fair opportunity to set forth every possible reason why he should not be separated. Although ·the hearing examiner felt the proposed penalty was severe, he concurred with most of the findings. In his memorandum of July 12, 1976, the Commissioner set forth his reasons why the penalty was considered appropriate.
Dr. Morris has the right to appeal the Commissioner’s decision to the Civil Service Commission, and he has done so. Thus, he has another opportunity to present his case. And, if the Civil Service Commission sustains the decision to separate Dr. Morris, he has still another opportunity to contend his separation; he can appeal the decision in the Federal court.
We are not aware of the source of the article about Dr. Morris’ being fired allegedly because he criticized the Administration’s swine flu program. We can only assure you that the Food and Drug Administration did not initiate the story, because that was not the reason for his separation.
Further, the statements in the article about the disposition of Dr. Morris’ test animals, records, and staff are incorrect. The implication that Dr. Morris’ research was a part of the swine flu program is also incorrect. Dr. Morris’ research was not a part of the swine flu program.
We trust you would understand that the Food and Drug Administration is not prepared to continue the research of an employee who has been separated because in many cases, his research was found to be, in the judgment of his peers, “poorly conceived, poorly designed, and poorly executed.” Consequently, the FDA undertook a series of steps to resolve space, staff, and resources in a responsible way. Uninoculated control animals or normal animals not used in specific experiments were made available to other investigators. Experimental animals were evaluated and judged to have been held beyond the normal completion of the experiment. These were humanely disposed of in complete accordance with the laboratory animal care requirements. Laboratory supplies and equipment were made available to other investigators. Only small quantities of partly used consumables have been discarded. Laboratory notebooks and similar materials that were a part of Dr. Morris’ personal research efforts were packaged and turned over to Dr. Morris. Those materials requiring maintenance at low temperatures, etc., have been boxed and stored for the time being. Each of his employees was interviewed and given a new assignment with every effort made to match employee preference to Bureau of Biologics need.
We hope that you will review these documents carefully as we do not believe Dr. Morris was treated arbitrarily or capriciously. Most of all we are appreciative of the chance to communicate our side of this issue.
If we can be of any further assistance, please let us know.
Robert C. Wetherell, Jr.,
After spending more than 25 hours reading the documents and interviewing FDA personnel, I concluded that Morris’s version of what happened was pure baloney. The final phases of his firing were summarized in four documents:
- In July 1975, Morris was notified that the director of the Bureau of Biologics proposed to remove him from his research position because of a pattern of insubordination and sloppy research dating back to 1972 .
- In May 1976, a hearing examiner recommended that Morris be suspended for five days without pay .
- In July 1976, FDA Commissioner Alexander M. Schmidt, M.D., concluded that Morris’s work and attitude were so deficient that he should be fired .
- Morris’s firing was upheld by the Civil Service Commission in June 1977 .
A few days after Parade‘s article appeared, I complained to the National News Council that the article was one-sided because it did not quote an FDA spokesperson. The National News Council agreed:
The story of Dr. J. Anthony Morris and his dismissal from government service is obviously a complex one which the authors of the Parade article in question have chosen to reduce to one which is simple. It is—in their manner of presentation—a case of good guys vs. bad guys with Dr. Morris emerging as the good guy whose revelations about the government-sponsored swine flu program marked him as an outspoken enemy of entrenched and self-interested bureaucracy. The article starts with the headline: SCIENTIST J. ANTHONY MORRIS—HE FOUGHT THE FLU SHOTS AND THE U.S. FIRED HIM. There is no disputing that he fought the flu shots and that the government fired him. But in between the two events lies a saga of governmental hearings, witnesses testifying to the competence of Dr. Morris’ scientific methodology and conflicting evidence. However, nowhere in this article . . . is there any indication of the breadth of the controversy or that there might be some substantive arguments on any side other than Dr. Morris’—arguments that could and should have been presented without affecting the authors’ basic point of view. The Council, thus, does not challenge the right of the authors to champion Dr. Morris’ case. Rather, the issue before the Council is whether in this instance the presentation was so one-sided as to have strayed beyond an acceptable range of editorial judgment. The article neglected the other side of this controversy, and the arguments advanced by the opponents of Dr. Morris were ignored. As a result, an essential element of the story was clearly missing.The complaint is found warranted .
Morris continued to speak out but attracted little attention after 1980. He died of congestive heart failure on July 3, 2014 at the age of 95. A few Web sites still carry his story. Attorney James Turner has continued to represent vaccine opponents.
- Cockburn A, Ridgeway J. Scientist J. Anthony Morris—He fought the flu shots and the U.S. fired him. Parade, March 13, 1977.
- Braunig WE. Letter to Dr. Stephen Barrett, July 14, 1977.
- Meyer HM Jr. Letter to J. Anthony Morris, Ph.D., July 11, 1975.
- Moore HL. Proposal to remove Dr. J Anthony Morris from the Federal Service. Examiner’s report of findings and recommendations. May 24, 1976.
- Schmidt AM. Letter to J. Anthony Morris, Ph.D., July 12, 1976.
- Decision on Complaint No. 113, Barrett against Parade. National News Council, Sept 20, 1977.