Friday, 10 May 2019 20:52

Thomas, Lattimer, and Reality: A Study in Contrasts

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Milicent Cranor examines how Don Thomas gives John Lattimer’s Thorburn story a make-over.

Whenever I open a book on the Kennedy assassination, I never know what rabbit hole I’ll fall in to. And I wonder if I’ll ever be able to crawl out—especially when I start checking an author’s references.

Lately, I’ve been browsing through Hear No Evil. Politics, Science & the Forensic Evidence in the Kennedy Association by Donald Byron Thomas—and it is full of surprises. (Please go here to see my earlier story on Thomas’s presentation of Kennedy’s throat wound.)

Thomas, a scientist with the US federal government, has a PhD in entomology. He specializes in beetles, and is former president of the Coleopterists Society.

This report concerns the puzzling way in which Thomas represented the work of the late John Lattimer, MD with respect to what has become known as the “Thorburn reflex position.”

Lattimer—former head of the Department of Urology at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, private physician to many prominent men, including J. Edgar Hoover—is the author of many articles (infomercials really) promoting the lone assassin theory,

William Thorburn was a 19th-century neurologist who documented specific neurological consequences associated with traumas to different levels of the cervical spine. One of his articles featured a picture of a man whose arms became locked into position after damage to his spinal cord at the sixth cervical (C-6) level.

Because the position of the man’s upper arms superficially resembled that of Kennedy’s, Lattimer seized upon the picture as “proof” Kennedy was struck at the C-6 level—that is, higher than the throat wound, establishing a downward path from the alleged sniper’s nest. (Bull NY Acad Med 53, 1977) (The back wound was actually much lower.)

Lattimer’s co-author, distinguished neurosurgeon Edward Schlesinger, admitted to me that neither he, nor a third coauthor, neurologist H. Houston Merritt, ever saw the Zapruder film, knew very little about JFK’s reactions, and never read the manuscript that carried their names.

They did not take its publication seriously. They knew Lattimer’s JFK stories appeared in the “Biography” or “Historical Medicine” sections in journals with lenient standards.

So, what was the point of publishing in such journals? The answer is, doctors were not the intended audience—you were.

Every time Lattimer published a seemingly peer-reviewed story, the mainstream press was tipped off, and quotes supporting the official view were selected and widely disseminated.

Thomas did not accept Lattimer’s use of neurology to establish a high wound in the back of Kennedy’s neck. Yet, he gave space to it in his book—only he put together a revised version.

You may find this report confusing. It’s about one man’s revised version of another man’s revision of history. Well, let the confusion begin!

Lattimer’s Version of Kennedy’s Position

Let’s start with Lattimer’s “proof” the bullet struck near the sixth cervical vertebra, a woodcut of a patient treated by William Thorburn, MD, which Lattimer claims resembled Kennedy’s, soon after he was hit for the first time:

In his book, Kennedy and Lincoln (1980), Lattimer began his chapter on this subject with the question “Why Did the President’s Elbows Fly Up When He Was Hit?” And in all of his writings on this issue, he has used this picture to illustrate JFK’s reaction. In 1993, he said the same thing, “Finally, by frame 236, President Kennedy has assumed the reflex position illustrated by Thorburn almost 100 years ago…” (JAMA, March 24,1993, p. 1545)

Thomas’s Version of Lattimer’s Version of Kennedy’s Position

Here is what Don Thomas presented as Lattimer’s choice of an illustration from Thorburn’s long article on multiple cases. This is not the same Thorburn patient Lattimer used as a model. His arms are obviously not in the same position as that of the man shown above (or Kennedy’s!). Furthermore, the position below is related to damage to the seventh cervical vertebra, not the sixth.

In the above picture, the man’s elbows are most certainly not “flying up!” Clearly, his upper arms are down by his side. But Thomas said “Lattimer proposed that Kennedy’s reaction, bringing his arms into a folded position with the elbows outward…”

But Lattimer always said the elbows were raised. He never said JFK’s arms were in a “folded position.” And he never used the picture above.

Kennedy’s Actual Position

As you can see from the Zapruder frame below, Kennedy’s actual position looks like neither Lattimer’s nor Thomas’s false representation of Lattimer’s depiction of his position.

Here is what Kennedy actually did as shown in Zapruder frame 236.

Kennedy’s elbows are definitely up and out—much further up than in the picture Lattimer featured. But Kennedy’s elbows are bent, bringing his forearms high across his chest, while the Thorburn patient’s forearms and hands are twisted outward. In the picture Thomas falsely presented (below, middle) as Lattimer’s choice, the patient’s elbows and forearms are not up at all. Here you can compare all three:

How Thomas Gave Appearance of Backing Up His Version of Lattimer’s Claims

On page 318 of his book, Thomas wrote,

Lattimer invented the ‘Thorburn position’.78 Lattimer proposed that Kennedy’s reaction, bringing his arms into a folded position with the elbows outward, was a reflex resulting from stimulation of the nerve cord at the level of the seventh cervical vertebra.79 Lattimer noted that the innervation of the upper arms, the brachial plexus, occurs at this level, and also credited a nineteenth century physician, William Thorburn, for first associating this particular anatomical posture with a lesion to the cervical spinal cord.80

In the above passage, it is reference #79 that is the most misleading. Thomas’s words: “Updated Thorburn reaction in Lattimer (1993) JAMA March 24, 1993.”

As mentioned earlier, Lattimer never described Kennedy’s position that way, not even in his 1993 article which Thomas says is “updated.” The only change Lattimer made was to associate the trauma to “C6-7” instead of “C-7.” And he used the same illustration that he always used. Not much of an “update.”

For decades, Lattimer’s disinformation has been a major contaminant in the corporate media’s representation of the Kennedy assassination. (Most recently, atmospheric scientist Nicholas Nalli used some of Lattimer’s “research” to support his own pseudoscience promoting the lone nutter view on the head wound. Please go here to see these darkly amusing grotesqueries, and their illustrations.)

Why give Lattimer’s false Thorburn story a makeover? Was he trying to restore Lattimer’s reputation with what he thought was a better Thorburn story?

After all, Thomas does depend in part on Lattimer’s presentation of Governor John Connally’s back wound in his own efforts to promote the single bullet theory. In his book, Thomas repeats—without any revision—all the demonstrably false information Lattimer published, which I exposed long ago, in my article, “Big Lie About a Small Wound.” (I was told that Vincent Bugliosi was about to use the same false information in his book—Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy—but did not after being shown my findings.)

In the beginning of this article, I commented on the rabbit hole nature of references. Had Thomas dropped down even one of these holes in the Connally back wound tale, he might not have repeated it. Unless he could think of a way to give it a makeover.

Last modified on Saturday, 11 May 2019 16:10
Milicent Cranor

Milicent Cranor is currently a senior editor at She has been a creative editor at E.P. Dutton (fiction, non fiction); comedy ghostwriter; co-author of numerous peer-reviewed articles for medical journals; editor of consequential legal and scientific documents; former member of the American Mensa Society. Milicent was a frequent contributor to Probe.

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