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Controversial Dr. Andrew Wakefield In The Pathological Optimist

by Kriss Perras


Let’s begin this discussion by saying I’m not a physician. I’m a publisher, writer, photographer, artist, and musician. What I can do here is facilitate a discussion on vaccines by bringing you, the reader, both sides of the story. So let us begin.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield. That name conjures up admiration in some and anger in others. Then there are other titans on the vaccine subject that have diametrically opposing views to Dr. Wakefield, such as California Senator Richard Pan (District 6). Add to this a British journalist named Brian Deer who accused Dr. Wakefield of fraud and dishonesty and a British journal, titled The Lancet, that first published then retracted Dr. Wakefield’s paper that suggested a link between vaccines and autism. This leads to a high profile court case in the U.K. that ultimately lands Dr. Wakefield without a medical license. Now we have the makings of a controversy. Still add to this discussion the media frenzy that swirls around these figures, and the discussion reaches a boiling point.

This is how director Miranda Bailey came to make the documentary The Pathological Optimist. She first approached Dr. Wakefield about the idea, and he said no. She instead continued with her idea and started filming figures around Dr. Wakefield. Eventually she wore him down, and he agreed to make the film. A five year undertaking, Bailey followed Dr. Wakefield around during everyday life and the course of this vaccine battle with the press, Brian Deer, The Lancet, the U.K. government and a defamation case in a Texas court as his controversial views on vaccines were publicly debated as either fact or fiction. 

Here’s the backbone of the discussion on Dr. Wakefield’s vaccine story, for the uninitiated. He published a paper in The Lancet in the 1990’s. In that paper he suggested a link between vaccines and autism. This sparked a massive public debate and outcry on both sides, pro and con, and the result was controversy, court cases and accusations. 

In Bailey’s documentary, much of what we learn is through the lens of the news media, which may not always be accurate. The narrative is told through a series of flashbacks. We move from the present tense to a flashback then back to the present tense as the story delves deeper and deeper into Dr. Wakefield’s claims and decisions, the decisions that surround him and the resulting media flurry, or crickets because of very little reporting on major points in the story. Point in case, very few corporate media outlets reported on John Walker Smith’s exoneration at the time. Now you might say who the hell is Walker Smith? Walker Smith was a doctor found guilty in the U.K. of serious professional misconduct over the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) controversy who won his High Court appeal in that country. Walker Smith had previously completed research with Dr. Wakefield. They had concluded there was a link between autism and the combined MMR vaccine. This is the paper that was published in The Lancet. 

Now that the background is set, let’s move forward with the discussion with the main players of this film, and the vaccine debate in general.

Topanga Journal conducted a Q&A with the director and star of the film The Pathological Optimist at the Malibu premiere of this film prior to the film’s screening that day. The director, Bailey, was candid and honest, funny and happy her five year trek was finally coming to screen. Dr. Wakefield was not what the media has portrayed him to be. He was candid and genuine. Again, this article is not about this journalist taking anyone’s side or taking a stand on vaccines. It merely presents both sides of the story to you the reader. It’s also a microcosm of the debate within Bailey’s documentary.



TJ: What made you make this film? It’s a very controversial subject?

BAILEY: I have to say when I started, I don’t think it was as controversial as it is now.

TJ: Oh really, even despite the fact Dr. Wakefield had his licensed removed?

BAILEY: I had just started right around then. I did a movie called Greenlit first. It was a documentary about the greening of the film business, and kind of the inherent hypocrisy within that. It was similar in the sense of that it didn’t come out with Hollywood is good, or Hollywood is bad, or environmental stuff is the best. It really kind of shows a balance. It kind of just shows what’s happening out there. My producing partner on my doc who is also the cinematographer, we were just exploring different ideas for our next film. Right around that time was when there was like whisperings in the United States of this doctor who had lost his license in the U.K. and was now living in the United States. We heard about this event that had all these speakers that was for a personal rights rally. We weren’t really sure what that was. But there was a bunch of different speakers there. There was like 12. And Andy [Dr. Wakefield] was the headliner. And we didn’t want to interview Andy because there was a lot of controversy around him. But we wanted to interview all these other people. There was like scientists to historians to lawyers. One of my friends who is a big documentary filmmaker said the real story is that guy, Andy. I thought it would be quite interesting to go in and see what it was all about. There was this whole MMR scandal that was written up in the Sunday Times with Deer. We just started looking into that. Ideally, we wanted to interview and explore stories that were antagonistic of Andy as well. But they didn’t really want to talk to us. So you kind of have to decide what you get access to. Obviously the movie has shifted many different times. By the time Andy actually allowed us access, it was shortly after the British medical journal came out. And shortly after him giving us access, he started to pursue a defamation case. Structurally the film kind of follows that and then goes back in time to how he got there, exploring all the allegations of the MMR scandal.

TJ: Is it what you’d thought it would be in the beginning?

BAILEY: What do you mean, the movie?

TJ: The subject matter in general. When you started out, you had a certain idea.

BAILEY: No I didn’t have an idea. I really didn’t know. Same thing happened with the documentary Greenlit. I wasn’t sure. I thought that was going to be like video extras. I didn’t realize there would be a whole story there. Not until I really got to meet his family and his wife and his kids and kind of be in there, and really become this very interesting inside look at this man we hear so much about. Obviously throughout the time I was filming, we just kept hearing more and more about him. It was quite interesting to see what we were being told about him, and also what I was witnessing on the other side. I thought it would be a unique film to be inside that world we hear so much about.

TJ: What do you think so far what’s been in print from the New York premiere? The reviews and the different things that have been said? Some are quite negative.

BAILEY: The reviews are positive about the film but negative about Andy. I don’t think anyone expected that to be different. I think we all knew the reviews of Andy would be negative. But we had a chance of having the film be reviewed positively, because it’s quite an exciting film. It’s engaging. Most documentaries are incredibly boring. This is not. It’s clear. It points out information. It has a very clear timeline. It’s emotional. You get attached to the characters. In terms of it as a film, I think it has been very positively reviewed. Him releasing Vaxxed was a big factor in how people are viewing this movie in terms of they probably assume that he had something to do with this movie. But he doesn’t. He’s only a subject. And his family is only a subject. He benefits financially not one penny from this movie. But neither will we, because it’s a documentary. And documentaries don’t make money.

TJ: Although some do.

BAILEY: Well, I mean maybe. I don’t know.

TJ: If you’re Bowling For Columbine, it makes money. 

BAILEY: I’ve made a couple documentaries. It’s always just kind of a labor of love. It was a challenging narrative to follow. It is unfortunate that people aren’t willing to look inside the story of the man, whether they like the man or not. I think it’s quite good. I think the thing that has been really fascinating about this was my intention, and my editor and other producer’s intention, being able to kind of make a movie where people could see different things in it. We go back to that style of filmmaking where the audience is the one who really gets to discover what they see as opposed to a lot of documentaries nowadays are like you must think this and this is bad or this is good and think this way. We didn’t want to do that. We really wanted to do a character study, and allow the audience to make their own decisions. It’s fascinating because one of my best friends is a nurse in New York. She came and saw it with one of my other friends who is an artist in San Francisco. The both loved the movie. They both had completely opposite views of the movie. The nurse felt like she was watching someone who was taking advantage of parents and spreading misinformation about vaccines. The artist from San Francisco felt that it was clearly about a man who is trying to fight for his name who has had this incorrect vendetta against him. It’s fascinating that you can see both of those things within the movie and appreciate the film. I hope all of his supporters and all of his dissenters and people who have never heard of him before go. It’s a Rorschach test of our time with movies right now.



TJ: Have vaccines changed since the time I was vaccinated as a child? I was born in 1966.

DR. WAKEFIELD: Dramatically yes.

TJ: How so? 

DR. WAKEFIELD: They’ve gone up in number, the sheer number that children receive. I think in your age group you probably would have gotten four or five vaccines. You would have gotten MMR. You would have gotten DPT and maybe the polio vaccine. Now kids get 72 shots before they go to high school. So there are many more on the schedule for increasingly minor diseases. Chicken pox. I mean chicken pox was a rite of passage. Now it’s become a major killer that needs to be vaccinated against. And they’ve accelerated the program. Now they’re giving more and more vaccines without any safety studies. Children are being given 9, 10, 11, 15 vaccines on the same day in the absence of any safety studies. It’s just not a good idea. In fact, it’s unacceptable. If you were doing that with standard drugs, you wouldn’t get away with it. You’d be sued, sued for medical negligence. Doctors are getting away with it because they’re vaccines.

TJ: Is there a link between vaccines and autism. If so, how do we know this? If not, how do we know not?

DR. WAKEFIELD: What I’m going to give you is my opinion. Okay? And my opinion is what it is worth. Do I believe after 25 years of investigating this that there is a link between vaccines and autism? Absolutely. I believe the parents are absolutely right. They were not anti-vaccine. They took their children to be vaccinated. And what they’re reporting is what happened to their children. I think now we’ve got a lot of evidence, a great deal of published evidence showing there is a link between vaccines and a whole slew of neuro-developmental disorders including autism. And the latest study draws a comparison of the health outcomes in fully vaccinated versus completely un-vaccinated children, which is the true baseline study for safety. And the rate of autism is very much higher in the vaccinated children as was ADD, ADHD and a whole range of allergic diseases. So children who are fully vaccinated are across the board much more unhealthy than children who are not.

TJ: Why are vaccines not classified as a pharmaceutical drug?

DR. WAKEFIELD: An extremely good question. I do not know. They’re classified as biologics, which means they get away with a whole lot of safety testing that would otherwise apply to drugs, including the requirement for double blind placebo control trials which are the essential baseline ethics assessment of safety. It’s remarkable that they’re allowed to do that. Of course there’s no liability for the damage done, unlike drugs. So the pharmaceutical industry, if they made cars, could make cars without brakes, people would die, and they still wouldn’t be liable. And this is perverse. And it’s completely wrong, because if there are no checks and balances, why would you do safety studies? It would cost you a lot of money. They may find something you don’t want to find. It may mean your vaccine won’t get onto the market. So you don’t do them. And that’s exactly what’s happened.



Topanga Journal posed these same three questions we asked Dr. Wakefield to Senator Pan, who is also a pediatrician. Senator Pan is known for his work on legislative mandatory vaccines. Senator Pan provided a statement instead of answering the same three questions. We pressed the Senator to answer the same three questions, but the Senator did not reply in time to go to print.

The following is the statement in full provided by Senator Pan to this magazine regarding Dr. Wakefield.

“His research retracted for fraud and his medical license revoked for unethical behavior by his home country, Andrew Wakefield moved to America to profit from his deceit by attacking public confidence in vaccines.  Every major medical, public health, and scientific organization, including autism science organizations, around the world agrees that vaccines do not cause autism.  Giving Wakefield a platform to spread his fraud and deceit harms Americans and injures our children when, just this year alone, Wakefield’s lies caused a measles outbreak in Minnesota that sickened 79 Americans, hospitalized 22, and cost taxpayers over $1.3 million to contain.”


Topanga Journal reached out to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). We posed the same three questions to their office. The following are statements from Andrea Fischer, Press Officer at the FDA.



TJ: Have vaccines been changed since the days when I was vaccinated as a child? (I was born in 1966)

FISCHER: Infectious diseases caused by viruses present significant public health challenges.  Improvements in identifying the etiology of viral infections and the development of vaccines has contributed to the prevention of countless cases of disease – and saved millions of lives. Vaccines have been proven, over decades, to be one of the safest and most powerful disease prevention tools available – and their importance is still growing.

Vaccine technology has evolved from growing and producing pathogens on a large scale in cell culture to defining and selecting protective antigens. Many vaccines developed today use technologies based on a better understanding of immune responses, the ability to generate the antigen on a mass scale, and an increased knowledge of host-pathogen interactions.

There are many types of vaccines categorized by the antigen used in their preparation. Their formulations affect how they are used, how they are stored, and how they are administered. Types of FDA approved vaccines include: live attenuated (LAV), inactivated (killed antigen), subunit (purified antigen), toxoid (inactivated toxins), polysaccharides and conjugates.

We have witnessed great discoveries in the field of vaccine development. For example, the first recombinant DNA vaccine was licensed by FDA in 1986.  In 2006 FDA licensed the first vaccine for the prevention of certain cancers caused by the human papillomavirus, and a vaccine for the prevention of shingles.  More recently FDA licensed vaccines to prevent invasive disease caused by Neisseria meningitis serogroup B, the first adjuvanted seasonal influenza vaccine, quadrivalent seasonal influenza vaccines, and a vaccine for the prevention of cholera.Additionally, FDA is working to help facilitate the development and availability of vaccines for the prevention of emerging infectious pathogens such as the Ebola and Zika viruses.

A priority for FDA is facilitating the development of safe and effective vaccines for infectious diseases that address important health concerns and would benefit public health. It is critical that we continue to conduct mission related research pertinent to the development, manufacture, and testing of vaccines and related products, including those for pandemic influenza vaccines and those prepared by genetic engineering and synthetic procedures, to support the regulatory process, and to assist in establishing methodologies and standards to ensure the continued safety, purity, potency and effectiveness of vaccines and related products. You may want to contact the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to obtain additional information about the evolution of vaccine development.

TJ: Is there a link between vaccines and autism? If so, how do we know this? Or know there’s not?

FISCHER: No, the scientific evidence does not support a link between vaccination and autism or other developmental disorders. Studies have been conducted by a number of organizations, including the World Health 

Organization, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics and all have failed to show any support for a causal relationship between vaccination and autism. Further information on this research can be found on the CDC website at:

TJ: Why aren’t vaccines classified as a pharmaceutical drug?

FISCHER: Vaccines are in fact regulated as biological products under the authority of 

Section 351 of the Public Health Service Act; and under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as drugs.


Topanga Journal posed the same three questions to all the Q&A participants in something of a sociological experiment, to see the different outcomes and common ground in the vaccine debate. It was interesting to see where everyone agreed, which turned out to be a very narrow space, and how wide the gap in the debate actually is.



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