Mercury, vaccines, and autism: one controversy, three histories

Am J Public Health. 2008 Feb;98(2):244-53. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.113159. Epub 2008 Jan 2.


The controversy regarding the once widely used mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in childhood vaccines has raised many historical questions that have not been adequately explored. Why was this preservative incorporated in the first place? Was there any real evidence that it caused harm? And how did thimerosal become linked in the public mind to the "autism epidemic"? I examine the origins of the thimerosal controversy and their legacy for the debate that has followed. More specifically, I explore the parallel histories of three factors that converged to create the crisis: vaccine preservatives, mercury poisoning, and autism. An understanding of this history provides important lessons for physicians and policymakers seeking to preserve the public's trust in the nation's vaccine system.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Autistic Disorder / etiology*
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. / history
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Drug Industry / history
  • Health Policy
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Mercury Poisoning / history*
  • Methylmercury Compounds / adverse effects
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / adverse effects*
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical / history*
  • Public Opinion
  • Thimerosal / adverse effects*
  • Thimerosal / history*
  • Trust
  • United States
  • United States Food and Drug Administration / history
  • Vaccines / adverse effects*
  • Vaccines / history
  • Vaccines / standards


  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Preservatives, Pharmaceutical
  • Vaccines
  • Thimerosal