Nov 15, 2011

Patient Zero

The greatest mysteries have a shadowy figure at the center—someone who sets things in motion and holds the key to how the story unfolds. In epidemiology, this central character is known as Patient Zero—the case at the heart of an outbreak. This hour, Radiolab hunts for Patient Zeroes from all over the map.

We start with the story of perhaps the most iconic Patient Zero of all time: Typhoid Mary. Then, we dive into a molecular detective story to pinpoint the beginning of the AIDS, and we re-imagine the moment the virus that caused the global pandemic sprang to life. After that, we're left wondering if you can trace the spread of an idea the way you can trace the spread of a disease. In the end, we find ourselves faced with a choice between competing claims about the origin of the high five. And we come to a perfectly sensible, thoroughly disturbing conclusion about the nature of the universe ... all by way of the cowboy hat.

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[sonic ID]


LL: So have we said where we are on tape yet?

SC: Uh -


JA: Starting us off today are our producers Lynn Levy and SeanCole.




SC: Very pretty day to be on an abandoned island where victims of contagious diseases were quarantined and one in particular who uh - lived here, died here - never believing that she was in fact sick and dangerous.




RK: So this is a story that begins when?


SC: Well it’s actually - it starts in 1906 - and it doesn’t start on the island, it starts in Oyster Bay.


RK: Oh nice neighborhood.


SC: Very nice. And there was this one rich family. On vacation there.


JL: And their




daughter gets sick. She gets sick first.


SC: This is Judy Levitt.


JL: I am a professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin.


SC: And she wrote a book about this story. So - basically the girl - the daughter has a fever. Then her sister comes down with it. And then her mom and a maid.


JL: About 6 out of 11 in the family get sick.


SC: And with this disease the fever’s just the first part of it.




JL: Both uh diarrhea or constipation are reported.




JL: So it can go either way I guess.




JA: What is it?




SC: Typhoid.




RK: Hm.


JL: And they couldn’t figure out what had caused the disease. So they called in this sanitary engineer




named George Soper -


SC: With the public health department. He was the go to guy for outbreaks like this. Back then the department of public health was thinking you know - you get sick because of something dirty near you.


RK: You mean in the well or in the pipes.


SC: Yeah so he looks into all of that.




JL: Did a whole uh test on the house and the water and everything, couldn’t find anything and so -


SC: He starts talking to the family.


JL: And he started




quizzing them all and they remember they


SC: Eventually -


JL: that they had had a summer -


SC: He builds up this whole picture of of - several outbreaks going back years.


Masc voice: 1900, Mamaroneck - a NY family had a house for the summer -

Masc voice: 1902, Dark Harbor, Maine -

Masc voice: 1904 -

Masc voice: 7 cases.

Masc voice: Sands Point NY.

Masc voice: Autumn, 1906.

Masc voice: Winter 1907 New York City.


SC: All these cases and they




all had one thing in common.


RK: What?


SC: Each of these families had employed the same






SC: cook.




JA: Really.

RK: Really.


SC: Which is funny




SC: because when you cook food you kill the bacteria in the food.


JA: Yeah.


RK: Oh so couldn’t be the cook then.




SC: But this cook -


JL: Her most famous dish was peach melba,





JL: Which is ice cream and fresh peaches.


SC: Fresh peaches.




SC: Raw fruit.


JL: It was a perfect medium.


SC: And the cook’s name was Mary Mallon.




RK: Mary Mallon.


JA: Mary Mal - wait a second Sean Cole.




RK: Typhoid -


JA: Typhoid Mary is who we’re talking about.


RK: Oh so we know this story.


SC: No you don’t know this story.


RK: What do you mean?


SC: Everybody thinks they know this story. I thought I knew this story. And then - when I looked into it I realized I didn’t know the first thing about it. And when you look into the details they tell us some very difficult things about who we were and who we still are in a lot of ways. It’s all in the details, all of the juice and


JA: Mm


SC: problem -


JA: Like like in - like the -


RK: Like the peach juice -


JA: juice - yeah the peach juice.


RK: That juice.


SC: Just like the peach juice.


JA: Yeah. Still dealing with -


RK: Wait! I’m Robert Krulwich -




RK: Go ahead go ahead do the - do your part.




JA: I’m Jad Abumrad.


RK: This is Radiolab




and in this hour,


JA: A series of stories that all hue to that delicious story archetype we call -


RK: Patient zero. The first cause -


JA: We’ll try to trace ideas and trends and massive social traumas like pandemics back to that one person.


RK: Or one critter-


JA: Yeah


RK: Or the other way you can call it is called the “but for.” If you didn’t have this thing but for this thing you wouldn’t have the




rest of the story.


JA: I like the but for.


RK: The but for.


JA: But meanwhile.




RK: Back to the peaches.


SC: So - George Soper’s like I’ve gotta find this woman. And - when he finds her,


JL: She’s in New York City working for another family.


Masc voice: The laundress had recently been taken to the Presbyterian Hospital with typhoid fever.


SC: This is from an article Soper wrote called the Curious Case of Typhoid Mary.


Masc voice: And the only child of the family, a lovely daughter was dying of it.


SC: So he goes




to the house - walks into the kitchen. Sees this woman - five foot six, blonde hair, blue eyes.


Masc voice: Had a good figure and might have been called athletic had she not been a little too heavy.


SC: Irish immigrant, 36 years old.


Masc voice: Not particularly clean.

JL: And he says Mary Mallon I think you’re causing disease in people and I want uh - samples of your urine, feces and blood.




SC: [laughs]

JL: [laughs]

SC: Good afternoon.

JL: [laughs]


SC: And she says -


DR: What are you accusing me of being sick?




SC: Playing the role of Mary, is Columbia public health professor David Rosner.


DR: How dare you, I’m not a sick person.


JA: What does she do?


DR: She chases him out of the building.




JL: With a fork in her hand.


SC: A serving fork.


JA: A serving fork.


SC: Yeah.


DR: Yeah.

Masc voice: I felt rather lucky to escape.


JA: But did she have typhoid?


SC: Um.


JA: I mean did she




outwardly have typhoid?


SC: Well that’s the thing.


DR: She never had any symptoms. She felt perfectly healthy.


SC: She was actually the first documented case




in North America of a healthy carrier which is to say someone who has the disease and is contagious but never actually feels the -


RK: The symptoms.


SC: The symptoms.


JA: Hm.


SC: So - in one weird way, Soper’s thrilled. Like he’s only read about this. And then here she is in front of him. But think of how all




of this must have sounded to Mary. I mean some guy from outer space comes into your kitchen and says you’re diseased and you’re hurting people. I mean she must have thought -


DR: What I feel




fine, I’m living a moral life, I’m not a vagrant, I’m employed, I’m a good solid citizen.

JA: mmhm

DR: You know you would be crazed too, wouldn’t you? Even today?

JA: You’d you’d probably grab your knife yeah.

DR: Yeah you’d grab your knife.




RK: Well does he have any evidence though that she is spreading the disease?


SC: Not yet that’s why he needs her poop.


RK: Ah.


SC: So he goes back, finds her at her rooming house, she kicks him out, swears at him.


JL: She apparently had quite a temper.


SC: And then the health department uh sends in this female doctor -


JL: By the name of S Josephine Baker. Maybe she could ask for blood feces and urine a little more gently -

SC: I just don’t know

JL: than -

SC: how you ask for that gently.

JL: [laughs]


SC: But she tries and when it doesn’t work, she




comes back a little bit later with cops.


JL: And they come to the house and - Mary Mallon when she realizes what’s happening, disappears.

SC: What do you mean disappears, she just vanishes?

JL: Just completely vanishes. They end up searching the entire place. And they can’t find her. Finally I think they’re about to leave




when one of them spots -


DR: Her skirt coming outside of a door.

JL: It’s a little piece of calico ha- it kind of stuck in a- doorway.

DR: They open the door and there she is.

JL: And so they drag her out and she comes out kicking and screaming and -

DR: Screaming and kicking.

JL: It takes all of them to drag her out.

DR: Protesting.

JL: They get her in the ambulance and Josephine Baker sits on her - and this is according to her.

SC: [laughs]

JL: - sits on her.


SC: And Baker later said -


JL: Something like it was




like being uh in a cage with an angry lion.


SC: So they take her down to the hospital.


JL: They tested her feces and urine and they found that yes she was in fact a carrier of live typhoid bacilli.



[motor noise / ambi]


Masc voice: It’s a weird island man, I spent a while on her.


JL: So they isolate her and they ultimately move her


Masc voice: Okay! Ugh -




JL: From Manhattan to North Brother island.


LL: It has a bit of a haunted vibe.

SC: Yeah.


DR: And there she is.


SC: Thanks man.

Masc voice: [XXX?]


SC: We went there to - just to try to get our heads around what she must have thought.


LL: What do you think?


JA: What was the island like?


SC: Man everything is completely overgrown.


SC: It was really creepy.


RK: Creepy because it was in such dissolution?


SC: Yeah yeah.


SC: Just be careful where you step.


SC: On one end there are all of these medical -




former medical buildings that - including a giant hospital where they isolated tuberculosis patients. So - big brick stately building. And then on the other side of the island, there’s smaller wooden buildings that are crushed.


SC: This is maybe where her cottage is.


SC: Where her cottage would be if it is still standing. But it’s not standing anymore.


JL: Well it was one room, one room. Uh - it had a kitchen. It had a - I guess




a sleeping area and a sitting area. It probably wasn’t so bad. It - if you didn’t have to stay there. [laughs]




You know any places that you’re not free to leave. Uh becomes like a prison.


SC: So we’re marching around and then Lynn says to me - hey look at the view. And -



LL: Take a look at that!

SC: It’s right there!


SC: That’s when it really hit me. If this is where her cabin was - then one window of it looked




exactly onto Manhattan.


LL: She could have seen where she used to live.

SC: You can see the traffic on the streets.


SC: This was like - the most horrible seaside vacation.




JL: Almost the whole time they had her incarcerated they took feces 3 times a week which is you know - it’s not pleasant to have to do that. Um - and sometimes she was negative and sometime she was positive.


JA: Wait. What?




SC: So -


JA: The -


SC: that’s that’s another thing that they were figuring out at the time. So she was probably an intermittent carrier?


JA: What does that mean?


SC: The disease is always in her - but




sometimes she excretes it and sometimes she doesn’t.


JA: Oh that must have been confusing for her.


Fem voice: When I first came here I was so nervous and almost prostrated with grief and trouble. My eyes began to twitch.


SC: This is from a letter that Mary wrote from the island.


Fem voice: I have in fact been a peep show for everybody.




SC: But if you keep reading it and in fact it’s addressed to a lawyer, it’s clear that she was fighting this and she had been sending her own feces samples herself to a private lab in Manhattan and each one of those was negative.


JA: Really.


Fem voice: The tuberculosis men would say - there she is. The kidnapped woman.






SC: Yeah that is poison ivy.


SC: She sues the city and loses. Still there are all of these questions as to whether any of this is legal. I mean even George Soper the




guy who hunted her down said - it was contrary to the constitution of the United States to hold her under the circumstance.


JA: And how long was she on this island for?


SC: 3 years.


JA: Wow.


SC: And then what changed was uh a new health commissioner took over.


JL: And so he says it’s just not right that we keep a healthy woman locked up like this.

SC: mmhm

JL: She was not dangerous to anybody if she didn’t cook.


SC: He lets her go.


RK: He lets her go.


SC: Yeah. Back to Manhattan. But he makes her promise -


JL: She did promise - she signed an affidavit -


SC: Saying she’ll never cook again. And




she…was released. They gave they they set her up with a job as a laundress and they went here you go Mary. And then - uh - you know - they kept track of her for a while.


JA: Mm.


SC: Uh and then at a certain point they kind of stopped keeping track of her.




JA: What happened?


RK: [makes scary music sounds] So how many years will go by?


SC: Five.


RK: Five.


JA: What happens next?


SC: Uh there’s an outbreak of typhoid.


RK: Oh boy.


JA: [laughs] Where?


RK: Where?


SC: At a maternity hospital. [laughs]




RK: Oh you’re kidding.


JA: Wow.


SC: Josephine Baker who sat on her in the ambulance before - she says that she goes and pays a visit and walks into the kitchen and she says the first person that she encountered was Typhoid Mary Mallon.




George Super did some uh leg work on where Mary had been and it turned out she had worked at a restaurant,


RK: Ohhh.


SC: 2 hotels, an inn and a sanatorium as well as the hospital.


RK: Wow.


SC: And at least according to his account,




2 of the people that she made sick uh during those couple years were children.


RK: Mm.


Masc voice: She was now a woman who could not claim innocence. She was known willfully and deliberately to have taken desperate chances with human life. She had abused her privilege. She had broken her parole.


JL: So then they put her back on North Brother Island, back in her bungalow. Um…and there she sits.




Masc voice: She was a dangerous character and must be treated accordingly.


RK: Absolutely she’s - broke broke her -




JA: Yeah I totally agree.


RK: She made a deal and she didn’t keep the deal!


SC: But the thing is is that at the time she was sent back to the island there were hundreds of other healthy carriers identified all over NY and some of them were cooks.


JA: What?


SC: Most -


RK: Really?


SC: mostly men - by the way. And -


JA: And they were cooking?


SC: Well they were barred from cooking but not all of the always listened.


JA: Huh.


SC: And yet Mary was the only one who they isolated in this way.


JA: Why? Why only her?


SC: I think




it was more about making people feel safe than actually making them safe.


SC: Oh look out for this stair - it’s all crumbled.


SC: She was what we needed at the time.


SC: We’re in the hospital. Where the tuberculosis hospitals were quarantined.


SC: This was towards the end of Lynn and my hospital at the island.


SC: Yeah these must be the wards.

LL: Definitely.

SC: Yeah.




LL: So when was she here?


SC: This is where they brought her. After she had a stroke. And this is where she was for the last 6 years of her life.


LL: Did she die in here?

SC: Yeah. Yeah.








DR: Hi this is David Rosner,

JL: This is Judy Levitt -

DR: reading this message. Radiolab is funded in part by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation.

JL: Enhancing public understanding of science and technology.

DR: Science and technology in the modern world.

JL: More information about Sloan at

DR: Radiolab is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR.

JL: Okay that’s it, thanks, bye.

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[door opens]


Masc voice: There are doors that once opened - can never be closed. WNYC




Studios - and Snap Judgement’s underground lair - Spook 2 is coming. Starting this August every week until Halloween. Be afraid. But - don’t turn out - the lights. Listen to Spook wherever you get your podcasts.




JA: Hey I’m Jad Abumrad.


RK: I’m Robert Krulwich.


JA: This is Radiolab and today -


RK: It’s Patient Zero. That’s our subject.




JA: Yeah and and this next story - Whew.


RK: It’s so huge.


JA: It’s the ultimate patient zero story really.


RK: Many of us have lived through this. It was - it’s as recent an event - it’s it’s such a recent event that it still hurts and it still bleeds.


JA: Yeah.


RK: And in it somewhere is a literally - the the patient that is called Zero. So this is -


JA: Yeah a lot of people are gonna help us tell this story, but starting us off is science writer, Radiolab regular, Carl Zimmer.


CZ: So in 1981,




doctors for the first time describe -


Masc voice: A mysterious newly discovered disease -


CZ: A syndrome.


Masc voice: which affects mostly homosexual men.  


CZ: The young men in Los Angeles


JA: Were dying.


Masc voice: The number of cases has been growing faster and faster.

Fem voice: So far more than 80 Americans have died.

Masc voice: 258 people have died.

Masc voice: 625 people have died.


JA: Of course this is the part we all know - how from the first few cases in LA, AIDS became one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever seen.


Masc voice: - more dangerous




than the plague of the Middle Ages.


JA: But back in the beginning there was a story




that I’ve not been able to shake for the last 30 years and it’s a story that I wanna reimagine right now.


DQ: Right after news of this syndrome started to break -


JA: That’s science writer David Quammen, who along with Carl will be one of our guides.


CZ: Epidemiologists were trying to figure out where -


Masc voice: Where did it come from?


CZ: And they were thinking like well - maybe it’s a sexually transmitted disease.


JA: So the CDC launches a study -


DQ: Of a group of about 30 patients.




JA: Gay men.


DQ: In NY, Los Angeles and San Francisco to see who had had sexual contact with whom.


JA: How - is that just a series of interviews with people?

CZ: Yeah please name all the people that you - that you’ve slept with.


JA: The CDC eventually releases the results of this survey in the form of a - diagram.




DQ: Like a network drawing. With circles representing patients and then lines representing sexual contact.


JA: And each patient- each little circle was numbered.


DQ: New York, 7. Los Angeles 12.


JA: So you didn’t know who was who but you could tell immediately




- when you look at this thing.




That of all the 30 or so circles there was one circle that was special. It had lines coming out in every direction.


DQ: 7 or 8 emanating from him.


JA: Like the hub of a wheel. Except all the spokes on this wheel connected to other wheels which then shot out and connected to other wheels, fanning outward. At the center of it all was that one little circle, numbered -


DQ: Zero. Number zero.


JA: As far as we know that was the first time that you ever get the term




patient zero.




Masc voice: Patient Zero was a man. The central victim and victimizer.


JA: This is from a 60 Minutes special in 1988. That year, a reporter named Randy Shilts had written a book called And The Band Played on that for the first time revealed the identity of Patient Zero.  


Masc voice: He was a French Canadian.

Fem voice: A very handsome airline steward.

Masc voice: Named Gaetan Dugas.


DQ: Gaetan Dugas.


Masc voice: Patient Zero.


JA: A few minutes later in the report, Shilts comes on to describe a guy -


Shilts: A guy who has got - unlimited sexual






JA: This sexual athlete who would fly from one hot spot to the next cause of his job. Having sex with literally thousands of men.


DQ: And as he knew he was dying - at least according to Randy Shilts he became somewhat sinister and malicious. He would sleep at a male partner at a bath house in San Francisco or someone else. And then when the light came up - according to Randy Shilts - he would say - I’ve got gay cancer -


Selma Dritz: Now you’re gonna get it too.

Masc voice: He talked to [X?].

Selma Dritz: I talked to him yeah.


JA: This is Dr. Selma Dritz.




She was part of that CDC study.


Selma Dritz: I told him that he was getting other people sick with it. And he said -


Fem voice: My right to do whatever I want - my civil rights - I do as I please. I’ve got it, why shouldn’t they have it. I said you can kill yourself if you want to but you got no right to take somebody else along with you. And he said screw you and walked out.


DQ: Really a chilling moment.




JA: And pretty much from that moment on, Gaetan Dugas -


CZ: He just took on




this this aura as, as single handedly causing a uh an epidemic in the United States.


RK: mmhm


JA: Now I don’t know about you but I first bumped into this story in the movie version of And The Band Played On.


Masc voice: My friend, we’re talking about thousands of men. Whose faces I cannot even remember and you want names.


JA: That’s an actor playing Gaetan Dugas in the movie. Now when I first saw that, AIDS had already infected 2 and a half million people and to think that it could all go back to this one guy.




Just seemed…unreal.


CZ: It was a it was a very uh - potent story. There’s no doubt. And and he - gave HIV to a lot of people. There’s no question about that. But - what we do know is that he was not Patient Zero.  

JA: He was not Patient Zero.

CZ: No.

DQ: He was not the beginning point.

CZ: He wasn’t.




JA: Not even close.


RK: Huh.


JA: So here’s the question that got me started on the story. Okay so the [gay steward?] that was the movie stuck in my head. But what’s the real movie? What movie




can we make about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic cause - when you’ve got something so vast that according to some estimates will have killed 60 million people by the end of the decade - well you need a beginning. You need some way of explaining how this disaster happened. And how it might happen again.




RK: And how exactly do we know that Gaetan Dugas wasn’t Patient Zero?

CZ: Well uh there are couple reasons we know it. So um - so one thing




that people started to do -


JA: Scientists.


CZ: Was to um - they went - started going back and looking at people who had died.

DQ: People who died mysteriously.

CZ: - with AIDS like things.


JA: In the past.


DQ: Might some of them have been early cases.

CZ: And they started finding a lot.


Masc voice: Robert Rayford had AIDS 12 years before it was recognized in this country in 1981.


Masc voice: 1959 - a sailor in Britain died of pneumocystis pneumonia.


JA: And so for a while you had all these new Patient Zeros.


Masc voice: In 1961 a nurse in Chicago died of Kaposi sarcoma.

CZ: But the real




definitive blow to this whole Patient Zero nonsense came by actually looking at the virus itself.




JA: In 1984, same year that Gaetan Dugas died, scientists isolate the virus.




JA: Which is really just a little string of - genetic code that gets into your body and into your cells and uses your cells to make copies of itself. But here’s the thing.


DQ: When it replicates within a single patient, it copies itself -




um imprecisely. It mutates quickly.




It changes a lot.


JA: As the virus duplicates itself inside a person, the dupes often have little copying errors in them, little mutations. And it turns out those errors - they happen at a predictable rate. You can kind of almost predict how many you’re gonna see in a year or 5 years. And so the amount of changes that you see out there - the diversity really, of the viruses in the AIDS population - well that becomes really good information. And so a group of scientists began to look at -


DQ: The amount of diversity among




HIV patients in the US -

CZ: And other parts of the world.


RK: And the more diversity, the longer the virus has been around.


DQ: Right right.

CZ: And they could use that kind of like a clock. And if you have a virus here and a virus there -


JA: You could measure how different they are, and you would know that it would take a certain amount of time for them to get that different. And to make a long story short -


CZ: The picture they get is -




JA: That AIDS entered the United States -


CZ: Around 1966 -

DQ: At a time when Gaetan Dugas was still a virginal adolescent.


JA: From there,




scientists were able to trace the virus back to Haiti and from Haiti back to Africa.


CZ: It’s been there the longest. It’s had the longest time to become diverse, to mutate, to evolve. So if you wanna really - if you wanna get to the - to the real Patient Zero as it were - the most interesting stuff come - actually comes from Africa. So one way to try to figure out its origins there is to go looking for the virus.

DQ: Yup and that takes us back to ZR59 and DRC60. Can we




talk about them?

RK: Sure.

JA: What?

DQ: These are the 2 earliest known HIV positive human specimens.


JA: And this is where for me at least the story gets way bigger than I imagined.


DQ: - come from -


JA: Now the first sample -


DQ: ZR59


JA: Came to light in the late 90s. Somehow scientists unearthed a very old tube of blood from a hospital from Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And when they tested it -


DQ: It had HIV. This had been taken from a Bantu man in 1959.

RK: 1959.

DQ: Yeah.

RK: Huh.




DQ: Nobody knows his name, nobody even knows I think what he died of. And - that was the only one for a number of years.


MW: That was our one glimpse into the kind of deep history of HIV. Very -


JA: But then along comes that guy - Michael Warby. He’s an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona. And a few years ago, Michael went back to Kinshasa and found a second HIV sample. He actually found the virus lurking in a tiny bit of human tissue that was preserved in paraffin wax.


MW: It’s kind of like uh - Hans Solo in uh -




in the Star Wars movie when he’s kind of frozen in - in that carbonate or whatever that stuff is.


JA: In this new sample, it was from the same town, Kinshasa as the first - and also - more importantly, from the same time.


MW: 1960. And with the 2 of them then you can kind of go back in time and so yes -




JA: Like we described before. You can measure the differences between the samples. Calculate how long it would take for those samples to get that different. And in the end you can use these 2 samples to wind the clock all the way back to the virus




that started it all. And it turned out -


DQ: The most recent common ancestor of those 2 specimens -


JA: Goes back to -


DQ: to about 1908.


JA: 1908. That is when it started in human beings.




RK: What? 1908? Is that what he said?


JA: Well roughly.


DQ: Give or take a margin of error.

CZ: Early 1900s.


RK: Wow.


JA: So, around 1908, give or take- something happened.


DQ: That’s right. That moment is the spillover.

RK: Spillover.




DQ: Spillover is the term scientists use to describe the moment when a virus in one species passes into another species.


CZ: You know new diseases in humans tend to pop up from animals. So people said -




okay- the flu comes from birds - where does HIV come from? To get at that answer you have to look beyond human beings. You have to look at other viruses that are like HIV.


DQ: So the search was on.


Masc voice: The inability to find a similar disease in research animals.




JA: Turns out right about the time that the HIV virus was discovered -


Masc voice: But scientists at the New England Primate Research Center -


JA: Some researchers found a virus like it in macaque monkeys.


Masc voice: Macaque monkey.


JA: In fact it was so similar that they called it -






DQ: Simian immunodeficiency virus.


BH: Yes and that’s where the origin quest started.


JA: This is Beatrice Hahn.


BH: I’m a professor of medicine and microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania.

JA: And so after they found it in macaques what happened?

BH: Um it took a couple of years -


JA: But eventually she says the found SIV -


BH: And still in other primate species the sooty mangabey -




JA: And then in a few more -


BH: The African green monkeys, mandrills.


JA: Pretty soon it was all over the place.


BH: There are now I think 40 different species of African monkeys known to have their own version of SIV.


JA: So then the question was which one of these monkeys or primates passed it to us?


BH: Then unexpectedly -


JA: A researcher named Martine -


BH: Martines Peters.


DQ: At the center in - [Gabon?] -


BH: [Gabon?]


JA: decided to test her chimps.


BH: 2 orphan chimpanzees.

DQ: And bingo. She found a very very close match.




BH: A virus that was the closest relative of HIV-1.




JA: So -


BH: Everybody said well you know -

DQ: It was a chimp.

RK: It was a chimp! Okay.

DQ: Yeah it came from -

BH: Yeah.

DQ: a chimp.

BH: Yes.


JA: But then the question was - well which chimps? Or rather - where?


DQ: Where exactly?




JA: So -


DQ: Beatrice Hahn and her colleagues started looking at chimps that came from different parts of Western Central Africa.


JA: Now getting blood samples from chimps in the wild is pretty much -


BH: It just isn’t feasible.


JA: You know because in the wild they hide the moment they see us.


BH: So you you get stuck with fecal samples.




CZ: It’s poop.

JA: Huh.

BH: Yes poop.

CZ: There’s lots of DNA in there.


JA: And viruses.


CZ: So they would just go to where the chimpanzees would sleep at night and they would just you know - collect some poop.


JA: Bring it back to the lab and Beatrice would analyze all the viruses.


BH: Over 90 different wild communities.


JA: From every part of Central Africa.


BH: Over 7000 different fecal samples.


JA: And slowly they were able to piece together -


BH: Which communities were infected and which one had the closest to HIV-1. And that’s when it




hit us for the first time -




JA: What exactly hit you?

BH: The geographic origin of these chimps.


JA: In 2006, her and her colleagues published that the human AIDS virus comes from a group of chimps - a very specific group. That live in a very specific place.


DQ: This little corner of South Eastern Cameroon.


BH: Between the Boumba River, the Ngoko River, and the Sangha River.


JA: These chimps were essentially penned in between these 3 rivers.


DQ: It’s an area probably only of 100 square




miles. Not much more than that.


JA: Wow.

RK: So when we’re looking at what humans have. And we’re looking at what all of those chimps in Africa have - the most perfect match is this little territory up there in Cameroon.

DQ: Yeah.


BH: There is no other virus that is any closer. So that’s that.


JA: So can you reconstruct the




spillover and the who that it spilled over into as be - you know as best as -

DQ: You can -


JA: We understand it?

DQ: you can hypothesize. And the best hypothesis is the




Cut Hunter hypothesis.

JA: The Cut Hunter.

RK: The C-U-T Hunter?

DQ: That’s right. A hunter who gets cut.

JA: And what can we say about this guy? I mean is he - what do we know about him?

DQ: If we had to guess - if we had to guess - that human was probably a Bantu man -




living very near the forest or in the forest in Southeastern Cameroon. He was hunting. Maybe he had a bow and arrow maybe he had a spear and uh - he




kills a chimpanzee. Bingo here’s a big pile of meat. And he starts to butcher it. He’s cutting open the chest cavity, he’s pulling out organs. And - he cuts himself. And he gets blood to blood contact. Chimpanzee blood against his blood. What happens is that the virus in the chimpanzee blood found itself in an environment that was unexpected that was alien to it but was not too




much different from the biochemical environment it had been in. Chimpanzee blood. It could function.




And that’s the moment. That’s the moment it begins. That human is Patient Zero.

JA: But why then? Why 1908? I mean presumably people have been hunting chimps for a really long time. When wouldn’t this guy be Patient 7 million?

DQ: That’s another of the big questions. People certainly in in Central Africa have been eating monkeys




for thousands of years.

JA: I mean David says there’s really no way to know but this could have just been the right virus.

DQ: Maybe this particular virus evolved in a way that made it more transmissible in humans.


JA: Or maybe it just got lucky. To come along at precisely the right time.


CZ: What you’re looking at -


JA: This is Carl again.

CZ: Is uh a time when this part of Africa was being heavily colonized. The French and the Belgians were building train systems. The populations were on the move.




Kinshasa which was then Leopoldville - it was exploding. It was huge.


DQ: The cities were attracting people from the boonies in those days.


JA: So by 1908 all the virus has to do is get from that tiny village where the cut hunter lived, to one of the new cities.


DQ: That happens - almost certainly by river.




I was - stirred by the work of Beatrice Hahn and Mike Warby to see what this scenario looked like on the ground.




So I went to Southeastern Cameroon and I chartered a little boat, about a 30 foot wooden boat with an outdoor motor -


JA: And he traced the path of the virus.


DQ: We went down the Ngoko River, and we stopped at a few villages. There are a couple little villages, there one of which has a market where you can buy um monkey meat and crocodile meat.


JA: And he says it wasn’t hard to imagine how it all might have went down. Perhaps the cut hunter gave the virus to a woman. Who then passed it on to a






DQ: Fellow that I call the voyager.


JA: Who then got in a boat as David did and carried it down the river.


DQ: The Sangha River which is the the the Ngoko is a tributary of the Sangha, Sangha becomes a bigger river. 200 meters wide which then flows to the Congo River, the big river -


JA: And into the city.


DQ: And I imagine him sliding into Brazzaville - around 1920. The first HIV positive man to arrive in




an urban center. Where there’s a much greater density of humans. Where there are prostitutes. A greater fluidity of social and sexual interactions. Um - and - that seems to have been the place from which the disease went global.




RK: So that’s how it happened.


JA: We could take it back even farther actually.


RK: What do you mean? Farther -


JA: Well cause if you wanna make a movie about the start of it - well this is not the start. Because we got it from chimps, right?




RK: Right.


JA: So you could ask -


RK: Yeah.


JA: Who was chimp zero? What do we know about chimp zero right?


DQ: Yeah I mean everything comes from somewhere and again by molecular work, scientists




have been able to determine that the chimp virus is actually -


JA: It actually comes from -


DQ: 2 monkey viruses.


JA: 2 different monkeys from 2 completely different species.


RK: What would they- have encountered each other somewhere? Or had a fight or -


DQ: Uh they probably encountered each other in the stomach of a chimp.




RK: Meaning what?


NW: Well from the perspective of a chimpanzee - monkeys - they look tasty.


JA: This is Nathan Wolfe.


NW: Professor in Human Biology




at Stanford University.




JA: And he says to fully understand this part of the Patient - or rather Chimp Zero narrative you have to grasp how it is that chimps hunt. And this is something he witnessed.


NW: In the Kibale National Forest, in in southwestern Uganda -


[monkey noises]


JA: He described to us watching 3 male chimps converge on a tree full of colobus monkeys which are these very small black and white monkeys.


NW: And one individual -




managed to grab 2 juveniles. And then the 3 individuals all met up and -


[monkey noises intensify]


JA: - began to eat the monkey while it was still alive.


NW: The chimpanzee was going after uh an organ you that that obviously was a - a tasty morsel that that he was going after. And and the monkey was uh - was screaming bloody murder.




JA: It is quite disturbing to watch he says.


NW: But the - one of the things that struck me at that moment - was the




depth of contact between the blood and body fluids of this monkey and the chimpanzee. The chimps are literally covered in blood. They have blood on their face and their eyes. And from the virus’s perspective - this is spillover heaven.




Okay so the following is the closest that we can get to a zero point in this entire narrative. We don’t know where it happened and -


NW: And we don’t know exactly the time say some hundreds of thousands of years ago.


JA: From the molecular clock




we know that it was less than a million years - that’s all we know. But whenever it was - chimp zero was hunting and he comes upon a monkey called a Red Cap Mangabey.


NW: The the Red Cap Mangabey this is a - a larger primate -


JA: And these are tree dwelling little little guys?


NW: Tree dwelling.


JA: Little bit of red fur on their heads.


NW: Yes.


JA: Chimp zero spots one of these monkeys. Eats it. And in the process he catches a red cap mangabey version of the AIDS virus. Next - some time after that first




kill - weeks, months, we don’t know - maybe it was the same day - chimp zero comes across another monkey. And this monkey was called a spot nose guenon.


NW: Yes.


JA: It’s got a spot on its nose I assume.


NW: There you go.


JA: Very small.


NW: One of the tiniest monkeys of all of the old world monkeys.


JA: And chimp zero eats that monkey.




JA: And gets a spot nosed




guenon of the AIDS virus or the SIV virus inside it.


NW: So you’ve got the red cap mangabey and you’ve got the the spot nose guenon - so you’ve got a guenon and a mangabey.




JA: 2 completely different kinds of SIV viruses inside the same chimp. Now - under normal circumstances according to Nathan - both of these SIV viruses would go nowhere.




Because -


NW: When one of these viruses makes the jump -  


JA: They go from a place they’ve adapted to - and that they know. To a completely foreign landscape.


NW: Uh like a human being dropped off on Mars. Maybe without a space suit.


JA: Huh.


NW: I mean they basically are entering a completely alien habitat. The cells don’t look the same. The environment is different.


JA: And the chimp’s immune




system would normally kill them.


NW: But then once in a blue moon.


JA: Something crazy happens.




These 2 viruses will end up inside the same cell in the same chimp at the same time.


NW: Literally there is a single cell - simultaneously infected with both viruses.


JA: So suppose on one side of the cell you’ve got the mangabey virus. And on the other side of the same cell you’ve got the spot nose guenon virus.




NW: And what happens is uh - literally-  


JA: Inside the cell.


NW: You have an enzyme. It’s called the polymerase en- enzyme that’s copying - genetic information of the viruses.


JA: This is what viruses do. They hijack these enzymes to make copies of themselves. Now - here’s the problem.


NW: These- these enzymes. They’re not necessarily that sticky.


JA: And while they’re in the process of copying one virus -


NW: Every once in a while -


JA: they’ll accidentally fall off




mid copy.


NW: And -


JA: go flap.


NW: And latch on -


JA: to the second virus. And just keep on copying. And so - what it ends up spitting out is a hybrid. Like that. Now this new mosaic probably won’t go anywhere because 99.9999999 percent of the time - when these hybrids happen -


NW: It’s a dead end.


JA: The chimp’s immune system is pretty sophisticated. It has evolved defenses against




these viruses - and it will destroy them. But again - once in a blue moon -


NW: So this is a blue moon after a blue moon after a blue moon to really get this. Finally you get one particular mosaic virus. Between the mangabey and the guenon.


JA: That through sheer random luck - works. It landed on the exact right combination of genes that allowed it to evade the chimp’s immune system.




NW: I mean one of the amazing things to think about is how many - how many hopeful monsters you had to have in order to get that one that

JA: Yeah

NW: actually survived.


JA: Probably trillions! But then boom. Suddenly in a flash from these 2 viruses that can barely survive in the chimp - you get a new virus.


NW: A little bit mangabey, a little bit guenon -


JA: Can not only survive in the chimp but can thrive. In fact it - for this baby virus, the chimp is the perfect host.




NW: And that was the virus that ended up spreading - jumping over into humans. And has been this massive and incredibly dramatic sort of tear in the fabric of humanity.


DQ: Let me add another parentheses. There are essentially 12 major groups




DQ: of the HIV virus.




JA: What David means is that 12 different kinds of HIV viruses have spilled over 12 different times.




DQ: 8 of them came from monkeys. 3 of them came from chimps. And one came from gorillas.

JA: Wow.

DQ: And of those 12 only one of them is responsible for the global pandemic.

JA: Wow there are 12 kinds.

DQ: 12 times that we know about. It’s probably happened dozens and dozens more times that we don’t know about - so the spillover is not a highly improbable






NW: These sorts of viruses - they’re constantly pinging at us.




They’re pinging at us and pinging at us. We see it happening all the time.


JA: You see it happening?


NW: All the time.


JA: Nathan has set up a series of monitoring stations.


NW: In places like Central Africa.


JA: And he and his colleagues have been tracking what he calls the viral chatter in the people who hunt these primates.


NW: We collected specimens from the animals that they were hunting.


JA: They compared that to blood samples from the hunters themselves.


NW: And guess what? We found a a whole range of new retroviruses that were moving over into these hunters.




JA: For example, he’s been tracking something called the simian foamy virus which is-


NW: Virus in the same family as HIV.


JA: And he has seen it hot from an individual gorilla to an individual human who killed that gorilla.


NW: Yeah these are almost certainly what we call primary transmission events.

JA: Oh so you really are looking at the - potential beginning of something,

NW: Yes.

JA: - who knows what.

NW: so if you want a Patient Zero.

JA: Yeah.

NW: Really clear Patient Zero. Uh - it’s some of these individuals that have been affected with these viruses.




And the real question is - how do we stop Patient Zeros?




How do how do we avoid patient - patient -

JA: Patient 1 and patient 2?

NW: Exactly.

JA: So Nathan is developing a series of tools like -


NW: Digital surveillance. I mean some of these places - uh - I work in some places in Democratic Republic of Congo - you basically have to fly in to get there.


JA: No roads. Often no electricity. But -


NW: Many of these places, they still have cell phone towers.


JA: So Nathan has begun to track cell phone call patterns in these communities. So if he sees a blip of




many calls to a medical center within a short period of time.


NW: Okay boom, now we gotta investigate that. We - continue to find viruses that are completely novel. And we’re looking to determine if these are - if these are the next HIV.


JA: Because the thing about it he says - HIV landed in humans in 1908 but we didn’t know about it until 1981.


NW: We had decades of time when this was a virus before it spread globally.


JA: What if we’d been looking for it?




A lot of people to thank for this segment. Thanks for Nathan Wolfe -


RK: For being Nathan.


JA: And he has an awesome new book called The Viral Storm.


RK: Also thank you to Carl Zimmer, whose book on viruses is called A Planet of Viruses - and thank you also to him and to Michael Warby. Uh their interview was recorded from a podcast from Meet the Scientist which you can find at




JA: And thanks to David Quammen whose got a book called Spillover coming out very soon which is all about diseases crossing over from animals to us.


RK: And also to Beatrice Hahn at the University of Pennsylvania.


JA: And to Katie Slocombe from the University of York for letting us use her recordings of chimpanzees.


Masc voice: My name is Brennan Novac and I’m calling from Reykjavik Island where about half the country believes in elves. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation. Enhancing public understanding of science




and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at




JA: Hey you wanna know about my - one of my proudest moments of being a dad?


RK: Yeah.


JA: Happened this morning.


RK: Yeah.


JA: So you know how E-Emil’s a little bit of an introvert right?


RK: mmhm


JA: We’re sort of worried whether he socializes enough. Well we were taking him to daycare and uh - we’re - get - he’s taking his shoes off and there’s this little boy who’s only there




2 days a week and he’s not adjusting well and every time his mother drops him off she has to literally pry him off her. And he’s wailing and - you know so Emil sits down on this little seat to take his shoes off. And the mother of this kid puts this little boy next to Emil and he is just crying - mehhhh - he’s distraught. So then what happens is Emil turns to this little boy - looks at him, sticks out his hand and says - high five. [laughs]




High five. Out of nowhere.


JM: That is amazing. Yeah cause it’s like they’re they’re out in their own society you know?


JA: Yeah totally. [laughs]


JM: Yeah.


JA: Okay so let’s do the introductions. Um - I’m Jad.


RK: I’m Robert.


JA: This is Radiolab we’re calling the show -


RK: Patient Zero


JA: Yeah. And for this next segment, no more patients.


RK: No more diseases.  


JA: No more diseases. Exactly.


RK: Let’s focus instead on invention - on the people who bring new ideas into the world.


JA: Yeah the zeros behind the ideas. [laughs] That doesn’t quite sound right, you know what I mean.


RK: Yeah.


JA: And that guy you just heard -


JM: Hi I’m John Mooallem. I’m a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.


JA: He’s got his own high five story to tell though it’s not about his daughter.


JM: We have - I think we have kids around the same age.


JA: Or her first high five. It’s actually about the first high five ever.


JM: Yeah.

JA: Ever?

JM: Yeah.


JA: See one morning a few years ago -


JM: 2007 or 2008.


JA: John turned on his computer, opened up his email and found -


JM: A press release about the the true, undisputed inventor of the high five coming you know out finally.

JA: Who was the press release





JM: National High Five day which is a kind of a joke holiday - that was invented by a group of high school friends I think.

RK: And and they told the story?

JM: They told the story of Lamont Sleets.




JM: College basketball player at Murray State in Kentucky.


RK: And the story in the press release went something like this. Sleet’s father fought in -


JM: Vietnam as part of a - the first battalion 5th infantry which is nicknamed the five. And they used to greet each other by holding up their hand and saying five as a kind of




prideful thing. And when Lamont was younger - they would all sort of hang out at the house in Kentucky and he couldn’t keep all their names straight so when they’d walk in the door and you go five, he would just sort of smack their hand -


[hand smack]


And he’d go hi, five.

JA: Oh like hi like hello five.

JM: Hello, five - yeah like -

JA: Ohh.

JM: hi comma five. You know he has small hands, he likes to put them up against the big hands of the five guys. And it was years later that he started playing college basketball at Murray State and started high fiveing - you know he really never stopped high five-ing it was just something he did. But when he went around playing away games,




other teams picked it up and it sort of spread out. So - he was sort of both the inventor of the high five and the kind of Johnny Appleseed of the high five at the same time.




JA: And within a few weeks of Johnny getting this press release.


RK: The story was everywhere.


JA: It went kind of viral.


JM: It wound up sort of all over the internet. There were some local newspapers who you know picked it up. You know Murray State suddenly became very proud of the fact that they were the - the home of the high five. It became sort of - part of the institutional lore in the athletic department there.

JA: And then you read this and you thought what?

JM: Uh I thought uh - how sad.






JA: How sad?

JM: Uh be -

JA: Why how sad?

JM: Because I knew the story of Glenn Burke.




JA: Turns out John had already been poking around into this question of who had invented the high five and he had stumbled on this photography.




JM: You know uh - maybe I don’t have it but uh -


JA: Black and white picture.


JM: Oh yeah here we go.


JA: 2 baseball players facing each other, afros, huge smiles. And their hands are in the air, right about to connect.


JA: Which one of these is Glenn Burke?

JM: So Burke’s Burke’s the guy in the warmup jacket. I think he’s even got his hat on backwards.




JA: Glenn Burke was a centerfielder for the LA Dodgers in the 70s. Big guy.


JM: He says he had 17 inch biceps so I’ll take his I’ll take his word for that. Uh -


JA: The other guy in the picture is Dusty Baker, he’s an outfielder. But you can tell in the picture - just from the way that Glenn is sort of throwing his whole body forward that he’s the one initiating the gesture. I mean this is a guy that was um you know the soul of the Dodgers clubhouse.


LBD: He just had that type of um charisma.


RK: This is Lutha Burke Davis, Glenn’s sister.


LBD: With Glenn it was like mm — well he’s always been on the stage. I often said he should have been a comedian.




JM: He was always dancing around in the in the clubhouse. He he used to do uh Richard Pryor standup routines just from memory.


LBD: He just genuinely loved people.


RK: So much so she says that in the year that picture was taken. The Dodgers made him the their sort of public face of the team.


LBD: He was their ambassador of good will.


RK: He’s the guy they’d send out to all the press events.


LBD: You know like meet the youngsters or you know -


RK: That sort of thing.


JM: Here’s the story about this picture.

JA: What was that date?




JM: October 5th - poetically enough - 1977.


JA: It’s the playoffs,




Dodgers versus the Phillies, game 4. Bases are loaded.


JM: Dusty Baker -


RK: Steps to the plate -


JM: and-  


[bat crack]


JM: Grand slam.


JA: Crowd goes nuts.


RK: Baker does his victory lap.


JA: And just as he’s -


JM: You know rounding third, coming to the plate -


RK: Burke comes racing out of the dugout -


JM: And he’s got his arm really high up and Baker -


JA: sees him, instinctively raises his arm and before you know it -


JM: Burke and Baker -




[hand slap]


JM: smack hands.


JA: Bam, there it was.




LBD: The sportscasters that would - you know announcing the game,




said they had never seen that done in sports before.


JM: And from there on, the Dodgers started high fiving and everyone all started high fiving.


LBD: The high five -

JA: Became a thing.

LBD: mmhm


JA: And it all began with that one moment.


JM: The platonic high five there.


RK: Unfortunately that moment -


JM: That was actually both the beginning and and also almost the end of - Burke’s career.




JA: It’s not that he wasn’t good - he was actually really good even in his rookie season.




JM: He was being talked about as the next Willie Mays by the Dodgers organization.


RK: But -


JM: Uh he was gay. And he tried to keep that a secret while he was playing uh - Dusty Baker actually had kept trying to set him up with his wife’s cousins. And uh Burke never want - you know never liked any of them and Baker was

JA: Oh -

JM: completely confused because he knew - you know - these were really good looking women apparently. So there were rumors circulating and the rumors reached the front office of of the the LA Dodgers and and one day Burke was called in by management. And they offered




him 75,000 dollars to get married.

JA: What??

RK: 75 thousand -

JA: 75 - to get married??

RK: Huh?

JA: What is this like the mob or something?

JM: Well exactly - I mean no they didn’t regularly offer their players money to get to get married, and and Burke’s response - uh apparently was - uh - he said - I suppose you mean to a woman?

RK: [laughs]

JM: Shortly after that, the Dodgers traded him to the Oakland A’s for a player who everyone acknowledged was completely inferior.

LBD: That was confusing for us and I know had to be confusing for him.


JM: It was shocking to everyone. No one understood why




he was traded.

JA: And you think it was cause he was gay?

JM: Yeah yeah.


LBD: You know baseball - this all American sport.

JA: Yeah.

LBD: But you know at least he was still gonna be able to play ball.

JA: Yeah.

LBD: Or at least he thought.


JM: He ends up in Oakland. Doesn’t get very much playing time.


RK: And when he did get on the field, it wasn’t very pleasant.


LBD: He used to get heckled a lot you know from people in the bleachers and the -


RK: And even worse, according to a couple of different people - his coach -


LBD: Billy Martin -


RK: Would often introduce Glenn Burke this way.


LBD: This is Glenn Burke, the faggot.

JA: Really.




LBD: Yeah.


JM: And uh so - Glenn Burke retires.

JA: Wow, and he was only like 26 or something right?


LBD: Yes, he was young.


JM: Within a year of his rookie season.

RK: Mm.

JM: Just walks away.

JA: God that’s like a - aborted career.

JM: Exactly. From there he ends up in uh - the Castro District in San Francisco which is the big gay neighborhood.


JA: And things go okay for a while.


RK: But then one day when he’s crossing the street -


LBD: 3 teenage girls in their mother’s car -


JA: Come barreling down the road.


LBD: And um they hit him. And broke his leg in 3 places.




JA: Oh man.

LBD: And that kind of ended everything when that happened.


RK: He starts taking pain killers.




RK: One thing leads to another.


JM: He gets hooked on crack, can’t hold a job. He goes broke.


JA: Ends up living -


LBD: On the street.


JM: And uh in 1994, Burke uh - is diagnosed with with HIV or AIDS. I guess AIDS at that point.


LBD: He ended up coming to live with me. And a lot of times he didn’t sleep well at night. And we would sit up and talk.




Put on music and I dance and he’d move his arms around cause he was in the bed.

JA: Hm.

LBD: He was bedridden.

JA: And so you took care of him until he died?

LBD: Yeah.


JA: Glenn Burke died in 1995.


RK: But what he’s left with at - at this point, is he’s left with the original high five. Right? That’s his claim.


JM: Yes yes. That defined him. To some people at least at at the end. And he - and he believed it. A reporter had asked him you know if it was true about the high five and and




he he said yeah. Think about the feeling you get when you give someone a high five. I had that feeling before everybody else did.




JA: Huh. So what did you do when you got this press release?

JM: So I called National High Five Day. Because I wanted to talk to Lamont Sleets. Even though I was sad uh it seemed like okay here’s another person’s prideful accomplishment uh let’s get his story.


GHE: Hello? Hello?


JA: Eventually -


GHE: Hey there we go.


JA: he gets this guy on the phone.


GHE: Uh my name is Greg Harrell






JA: Greg is one of the founders and he and John gets to talking and John asks him - the sensible first question.


JM: Is the Lamonts Sleets story true?


RK: He figured it was, but you know he thought he should at least ask, he’s a reporter.


JM: And there was a pause and he said - no.


GHE: Frankly we’ve been waiting for someone to ask - we thought no one would ever ask.


JM: It’s not true.


GHE: It’s just something that we had made up. We wanted to see if the media would would run with it.


RK: They made the whole thing up.


JM: They made the whole thing up and then they just went to go cast their protagonist.


GHE: Yeah so we sat down, we picked uh - Murray State.




That’s just kind of a great sounding school, it pops up in the NCAA tournament every few years. And they came across this guy Lamont Sleets.


JA: Why him?

GHE: Well it was pretty close to random.

JM: They then told me they had received an email from Lamont Sleets’s wife.


GHE: Absolutely. His wife emailed us and said some of the details that you have are are flat out wrong. [laughs]

JA: That implies that some of the things you said are right though.

JM: But Lamont thinks he probably did invent the high five.

JA: Wait wait wait wait what about Glenn?


LBD: I was kind of like…mm. Kind of




a bit blown away you know.


JM: Yeah you know here was this guy who was proud of this and these guys just kind of stripped it away from him.


JA: Do you feel a little guilty? That I mean -

GHE: Uh -

JA: like okay it’s a high five it’s kind of a silly thing - on the other hand this guy’s life the way he died.

GHE: Um -

JA: Do you feel like you robbed him?

GHE: We do feel uh - we do feel…we wish that we had done things slightly differently and and putting together this sort of collegiate prank. But we didn’t really know of Glenn Burke of that time.  


JA: Greg says they hadn’t heard of the Glenn




Burke story when they pulled this prank and now that they know it - they really feel bad. in fact they’re now organizing a charity event they’re calling -


GHE: The National High Five-athon.


JA: Which will raise money for charity including one chosen by Glenn Burke’s sister Lutha.


LBD: I’m very proud. Any time I see somebody do a high five - it just really makes me happy.


JA: And that seemed like a good end to the story.


LBD: But uh -


RK: No - because then John told us that -


JA: If you really honestly wanna get to the bottom of who invented the high five - I mean we didn’t think we wanted to but now that we’re in it what the hell. Well you’ve gotta go beyond




Glenn Burke’s story.




JM: I’ve wanted you to believe that he was the hero at this point, right? [laughs] So maybe I should tell you about Derek Smith right?


RK: Even though Glenn Burke died believing that the high five was his legacy, at more or less the same moment that he invented it, a guy named Derek Smith - a basketball player for the Louisville Cardinals was at practice -


JM: And a guy named Wiley Brown - went up to Derek Smith and was gonna give him just an ordinary low five and Derek Smith looked him in the eye- this is what Wiley Brown told me. Derek




Smith looked him in the eye and said - no - up high.


[hand smack]


That year’s Louisville team, they were they were known as the doctors of dunk. You know they’re a high flying team they played above the rim.


JA: And John says when Louisville played in the 1980 NCAA finals -


Masc voice: Wiley Brown!


JM: I haven’t seen it but apparently the broadcaster referred actually to the high five handshake.


Masc voice: - give them the high five handshake. High five -


JM: He felt compelled to explain it to America and you know -

JA: Wow and did did - the moment that Derek Smith did it, did an astereoid fall on his head or something?




JM: Well




in 1996 I believe in in the 90s he had an undiagnosed heart condition and he just died all of a sudden on a on a cruise ship.

JA: What?

JM: Yes. And um - he said explicitly - to Wiley Brown - this is something I’m gonna be remembered for. You know our kids and our grandkids are gonna talk about this and in fact their kids and grandkids do talk about it.


JA: And they’re probably very proud.


RK: But -




KG: It was Kathy -


RK: Then we ran into this one.


KG: Radiolab, fire away!


JA: This is Kathy Gregory - she coached women’s volleyball in the 1960s.




Years before Glenn Burke and Derek Smith. And she says with her girls,


KG: everyone did it.


JA: All the time.


KG: So I do believe that it was volleyball that first started it.


JA: And interestingly she says they would high five more when a player screwed up.


KG: Yes no no - it isn’t just about celebration.


JA: Cause really when do you need a high five?


KG: Of course it’s more when you’re down.


JM: Yeah it makes people so happy.


JA: So women’s volleyball there you go.


Masc voice: No [XXX?]


RK: No ne pas du fini!


[French film]


Because then our producer Lynn Levy also discovered that in the movie Breathless - [laughs] -




in 1955, at exactly 1 hour 18 minutes into the film you will see 2 frenchmen do a very distinct - [X?] cinq -


[French film]


Right there!!


JA: [laughs]




Isn’t this all like an indication to you that it that it’s maybe - it’s one of those things that - probably was there at the dawn of man?


JM: Because it like gives pleasure?

JA: [laughs] Yeah it’s just like a -

JM: Like from an evolutionary point of view?

RK: No I don’t think so, I think it -




I think it’s a - I think this has a feeling of something that was born. See now we have to decide like we have to confess like - who in this room wants Bur - the the gay guy to be the to be the inventor.


JA: I want the gay guy -


RK: I - me -


JA: Yeah, I’ll raise my hand sure.


RK: Yeah. It’s it’s the better story of the 2 and something in me says like just go - go with the narrative winner. You know so I -


JM: You don’t even you don’t even have the narrative winner.


RK: What are you doing here - we didn’t -


PW: I was bored at my desk. [laughs]




JA: This is Pat Walters our producer.


PW: You guys clearly failed at finding the first high five.

JA: And you’re saying you have the best.

PW: Yeah.

JA: There’s no such thing as the best.

PW: Yes there is. I’m about to tell you what it is.

JA: [sighs] What - we’ve already beaten a dead horse here. All right what is it what is it?


PW: Hello?

TH: Hi.


PW: Features this guy named Tim.


TH: Tim Hammond.


RK: This is him?

PW: Yep.


KS: Hello?


PW: And that’s his girlfriend Katie.


KS: Katie Shaffer.


PW: And this little mini story begins in 2004. One July evening -


TH: Beautiful night out.


PW: Tim’s out




riding his motorcycle.


TH: And uh - I’m 10 minutes into my ride- a deer jumped out in front of me and uh -


PW: He slammed on his brakes and his bike -


TH: And just kind of like skidded and there’s a mailbox - just - snapped my neck. I woke up I was laying in the hospital room and uh - I opened up my eyes and I went to lift my arm up cause I had an itchy nose.

PW: Yeah.

TH: And my arm wouldn’t move.


PW: He was paralyzed from the neck down. And so for 7 years, Tim hasn’t been able to hug his daughter or for that matter, his girlfriend.




TH: You know we started to date - [X?] after my accident. I’ve never been able to hold her hand or -

KS: Reach out and touch me.

TH: I mean I feel that- I’m almost in a prison.


PW: But fast forward a few years. Tim signs up for an experimental procedure at the University of Pittsburgh. Doctors open his skull, connect wires to the part of his brain that would move his arm if his arm worked. And they connect the wires to a robot arm.


TH: [X?] even Katie said or whatever whenever she saw the wires coming out




- she’s like that just looks weird.

KS: Crazy.


PW: And there’s a video of one of the first times that Tim actually moves this arm. What you see is him sitting in a chair. Doctors kind of watching and his girlfriend Katie is just in front of him off to the left a little bit.


TH: They hooked me up to the arm and uh - the machine said -

Machine: Up.

TH: Up.


PW: Tim kind of grimaces.


TH: You know my brain was sending up that - specific type of signal that means up.

PW: Yeah.

TH: And once the computer was able to read that,




PW: The arm -



TH: Started to go up in the air.

Fem voice: All right.

Masc voice: There you go.

[laughter / cheering]


PW: Not long after this moment, Katie stands up from the chair that she was sitting in beside Tim and walks over in front of the arm.


TH: And uh - it was not even talking - she




TH: she just held out her hand.


PW: And she says -


KS: Baby I wanna hold your hand.


PW: And for a moment there’s this like - stillness in the room.




And then - the robot arm - jerks forward - just - like a fraction of an inch.


TH: Katie’s hand holding up there - that was the target. To touch her hand.


PW: And then the arm jerks up a little bit more.


KS: You can see him going from looking at the arm -


PW: And then a little bit more.


KS: To looking at me and then looking at the arm.


PW: A little bit more - until -




They’re touching.


KS: Baby.




KS: When I looked at him




like - I just started tearing up and then he started tearing up -




PW: And in a way this high five - if you can call it that - it was sort of like - the first time they ever touched.


TH: In space and time I was able to put this piece of machinery that looked very similar to a hand. On her hand. Not only did I just touch her - but I pushed into her hand.




KS: It was weird too because the hand was actually warm.

PW: The hand was warm?

KS: Yeah like that’s the one thing that I just kept saying to people like it was warm, it wasn’t cold. I don’t know it just - it still kind of like boggles my mind when I think about it.




RK: We should say thank you to Pat Walters who -


JA: Yeah.


RK: That was kind of -


JA: Not bad, Pat Walters.




RK: Pretty nice.


JA: Not bad. Not bad. But let’s remember we’re after the first,


RK: That’s right.


JA: We’re not after the best. We’re after the first.


RK: And we’re gonna take one big leap before we finish the show and try something really odd.


JH: Hi, how you doing?

RK: Ah.


RK: We met a guy.


JH: I’m Johnny Hughes - I’m a documentary maker from Britain um - also a science journalist.


RK: He’s an author, he recently wrote a book.




JH: Called on the origin of tepees.

JA: Tepees why?

JH: Well if I’m being honest it was because it was a sort of pun. [laughs] on the origin of species - nothing much rhymes with species but -

JA: Ohh.

RK: [laughs]


RK: You see Johnny wanted to write a book about the origins of ideas, the same way that Darwin wrote his book about the Origin of Species.


JH: So I went chasing off after tepees.


RK: Which brought him to the USA and then he ended up driving across the country.


JH: Straight across -






going west on - into the - onto the Great Plains um -


RK: As he did - the - the farms gave way to prairie and then to wide open fields. And it was at that point that he noticed something a little different. There was a distinct change in head gear.




JH: Yeah. As soon as you get onto the shortgrass prairie.


RK: Right after Bismarck.


JH: There’s a very obvious transition from baseball caps to cowboy hats.




RK: And that got him to wondering like how did the cowboy hat






get to the west. Suddenly there it is and he’s thinking - who designed it or created it or invented it and he’s decided to do some research. And at first the answers seem pretty obvious and actually quite simple. So here’s his explanation number 1.


JH: So the answer [one?] to the question who invented the cowboy hat. It’s straightforward.


RK: And it goes like this.






1865, the Gold Rush. Colorado. Everyone’s coming in from all over the world to make their fortune pan for gold.




They bring their hats.




JH: So there’s sort of a mixture of hats from all different parts of the world - from the north, from the south, from the cities - quite a ridiculous collection of hats we might say. You got silk top hats.




RK: No!!




JH: Seriously.

RK: In Colo - in the Gold Rush?

JH: In the Gold Rush.

RK: That would be your Abe Lincoln hat.

JH: Great in the east coast cities. Pretty useless on the top of the Pikes Peak.

JA: Why? Cause it’s cause it gets blown off by the wind?

JH: Blown off, it gets wet.


RK: So you’ve got your Abe, but you also have -


JH: Raccoon skin hats, the sort of Davey Crocket things.


RK: Great in the winter, but come the summer.


JH: They got full of fleas. And they made you really hot as well.




JA: That’s not good.

JH: You also had um straw hats from the plantations from the south.

RK: Which are I don’t know - kind of flimsy?

JH: Would have been some sombreros.

RK: Not bad actually.

JH: Yeah. Keep the sun off your eyes, keep you cool. But they have enormous brims.


RK: Problem is when it rains.


JH: Water just collects and stays on there.




RK: There you are in Colorado. With lots and lots of hats.


JH: But none of them were perfect. All of them were slightly - unfit.


RK: Enter Mr. John B. Stetson.


JH: He was the son of a hatmaker in the east coast - and he came over looking for his fortune. And the story goes -




RK: When he landed in Colorado, he looked around and he immediately saw an opportunity.


JH: Went back to the east coast, gathered his thoughts.


RK: And in a moment of unnatural and inspired inspiration. [laughs] If you can be so inspired. He saw -


JH: The fully formed cowboy hat.

JA: In his head.

JH: Yeah. So he had the model in his head.

JA: And what was it?

JH: So his model was - and he didn’t have a wide brim to keep the sun and the rain off your head. But not as wide as a sombrero cause that was impractical. But also much wider than - let’s say a top hat which was useless.

RK: And it needed to be waterproof?




JH: Cause he knew that it was wetter over in the west.


RK: Needed to have a high dome on top to keep you cool up there.

JH: He knew what it ought to be.

RK: so after a little hammering and stretching and cutting he had the perfect hat. And he called it -




Masc voice: The Boss of the Plains.


JH: Which everyone in the west wanted to be. So - picture the scene - boss of the plains arrives - it’s gorgeous, you want one. You threw away your horrible raccoon thing. And you went for one of those.

RK: [laughs]

JH: Uh it very quickly became a status








RK: That is story number 1.


JA: Pretty straight forward.


RK: Yeah.

JA: It was a guy.


RK: It’s a guy.


JH: It’s JB Stetson, he came up with the idea, he was a genius, he got it sold.


JA: Okay, what’s the problem with that story,


RK: Well,


JA: it seems fine.


RK: the problem with that says Johnny - and he realized it the moment he landed out west and he started to look into this.


JA: Uh huh.


RK: Close your eyes and imagine you know your your quintessential cowboy hat.


JA: You’re asking me to do this?


RK: Uh yeah please just do it.


JA: Okay got it in my head.


RK: Is it a high dome?


JA: Yup.


RK: Broad brim.


JA: Very. It’s got a dent in the top.


RK: Well see -


JH: The picture that




we have in our heads is not what Stetson invented.


JA: Really why? I mean what did Stetson’s look like?


JH: Probably the dullest cowboy hat you could possibly imagine. No rolling at the edge of the brim. No dents on the crown uh - had a little ribbon around it.

JA: A ribbon??

JH: Yeah.

JA: It’s not very bossy, that’s - dainty!

JH: [laughs]


RK: So Johnny did some more research and he now comes up - this is coming up now - theory number 2 to explain who or what designed the hat.




Again 1865 it’s Colorado Gold Rush time, people are coming in from all over, JB Stetson shows up,




he makes the hat - but - the hat was very expensive.


JH: You couldn’t afford more than one. So from then on




for the next 10 years,


RK: You would wear it like all the time.


JH: You’d be picking it up the whole time. With the crown so you’d be pushing these dents into it every time you sort of yee-hah-ed and you’d also be sleeping on your hats - you’d be folding over the brim. So within a few years the cowboy heroes. These guys are turning up at the [railhead?] towns - with these - what we might call in Britain knackered - boss of the plains hats.


RK: That looked like a




completely different hat than the one they bought in the store.


JH: Yeah they’d be battered.


RK: And think about this if you’re a a a young cowboy and you’re looking for your first cowboy hat -


JH: Do you want one that looks like the guy who um runs the hardware shop -


RK: Who’s got the pretty dainty one -


JH: Or do you want the one with a dent in it like your dad, the cowboy?


RK: And so hat makers picked up on this and they began producing pre-dented crumpled knackered hats.


JH: Stetson responded as well, you can look through the - kind of order books of Stetson. And you will see the designs change over time.




RK: All of which is to say if you wanna tell the story this way - you can say yes Stetson was there Stetson played his part but when it comes to a true cowboy hat, the one we think of when we think of a hat - Stetson really didn’t invent it.


JH:  The cowboys did.


[cowboys: yahoo!!!]


JH: The entire population of cowboys were instrumental in choosing the future evolution of the cowboy hat. It’s almost like the market’s deciding - which in this case is cowboys.


JA: And and can I just plant my flag and say that seems like a very sensible theory.


RK: It does -


JH: But um -




RK: Something about this story number 2- was still nagging Johnny.


JA: Oh there’s more?


RK: He’s gonna go one more round. Do we wanna come with him?


JA: I will go.


RK: Here we go.


JH: The third answer to the question - who invented the cowboy hat.




JH: Is no one did.




RK: [laughs]

JA: Well someone did.

JH: What I mean is - that there were no mindful decisions going on here. Not even a community of people mindfully chose where the cowboy hat was gonna go.

JA: Mindfully.

JH: Yeah. So - um -




JA: What do you suppose




he means by mindfully?


RK: This is where you get a little bit science. You know that if you were say - a mouse. And you were living in an environment happily -


JA: mmhm


RK: and then all of a sudden things turn cold. If you have short hair, you’re gonna shiver and then - maybe die.


JA: Right.


RK: But if another mouse happens to have longer hair -


JH: You know they’re gonna do better they’re gonna do better in life they’re gonna have more maybe mice.


RK: So over time in this community you’re gonna get more and more and more mice. With longer and




longer hair.


JA: Makes sense.


RK: Now these mice, they don’t choose the length of their hair they just have - the hair they got. It is the weather, it is the local environment - that’s what really shapes these mice and you can think of the hat in the same way.


JH: We’re looking at the hat shape itself. The hat shape is changing over time without any um forethought.


RK: Thanks to that Gold Rush in the 1860s you got a




whole bunch of very different hats showing up on the Great Plains. And all those hats show up on heads and those heads and hats are gonna have horribly cold winters - searingly hot summers. They’re gonna be in the wind, they’re gonna be out of doors because the main occupation is gonna be moving cattle across the plains.


JA: mmhm


RK: In this very competitive hat situation the hat that’s gonna survive is the hat that keeps you comfortable, keeps you cool keeps you dry. In




other words - the cowboy hat.




Therefore in this third version of our story, it wasn’t Mr. Stetson, it wasn’t the cowboys. According to Johnny -


JH: The environment created the hat.


RK: The wind created the hat.


[wind / rain noises]


RK: The rain. The sun. The snow. The weather created those hats.


JH: Absolutely right.


RK: This hat was just bound to appear in that place in that time.


JH: It would have been invented by someone cause the habitat was there.




The environment was right.


JA: There’s something kind of poetic about the idea that the hat was called the boss of the plains and if if your third movie is correct then it’s really the plains were the boss of the hat or something else. [laughs]

RK: It’s true. [laughs]

JH: Jad that’s brilliant.




JH: I like that one.


JA: See - on the other hand I’m not sure I like it because…like I’m just thinking about all the edits that we do as storytellers. Like for the pieces in this show like the thing we’re always trying to do is kind of get




to moments - and we’re trying to always atomize everything, get down to the - particular person who made the particular decision that resulted in the particular change. Like that’s what we want as storytellers. So in some sense your scenario 3 is like - the death of story in some sense, it’s the anti story.




JH: Feels less glamorous doesn’t it.

JA: Well yeah it it

JH: But you know what?

JA: runs counter.

JH: Do you know what when Darwin came up with the theory of - well when he published his theory of evolution by natural selection - that felt




like a death in a way. Cause it felt like you were taking away the creator - this amazing being. Uh - you were diminishing life to - sort of mindless process. So a lot of people criti- criticized him for the same thing. It’s not as romantic. It’s not as - well - it is as awesome. It’s just not in the same way.

JA: Yeah.


JA: And come to think of it we always end up screwing up our stories by you know - you start to ask questions - and -


RK: And then all of a sudden you’re sucked into this thing.


JA: Suddenly it’s all complicated and you have to




deal with it…


RK: You have to deal with the everythingness of everything -


JA: Pshhh. Let’s just keep it simple.


RK: Well it’s about time Jad and Robert came into a show and said that’s the end of it and you know what? It was.


JA: [clears throat]


RK: No see it’s always more complicated than that isn’t it -


JA: It’s true cause -


RK: Yeah.


JA: I mean it’s never really the end.




JA: When you think about it. Like what is an end? You get the -


RK: [XX?]


JA: You get the credits -


RK: You need all these things -


JA: people call in -


RK: telephone guy -


JA: read the thing - we should just -




[fade out / music up]



BH: Hi Radiolab, this is Beatrice Hahn. Radiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad.




DQ: This is Quammen, Our staff includes Ellen Horne, Soren Wheeler, Pat Walters, Tim Howard, Brenna Ferrell, Lynn Levy, and Sean Cole.


Masc voice: With help from Jonathan Mitchell, Rachel James, and Matt Kielty.


Masc voice: Special thanks to Mike Feller, Chris [Kondian?]


Masc voice: Sydney Smith, Ben Feldman.


Fem voice: [XX?] Felchin and Katie [XX?].


Masc voice: That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Okay y’all, bye bye.