ON THE MORNING OF AUGUST 4, 1963, the front page of the New York Times carried the headline "Dr. Ward Is Dead; Suicide Note Calls His Foes Vultures." The story revealed that the 50-year-old Ward, an osteopath and artist who had moved with ease among the upper-crust inhabitants of London's West End, had died from an overdose of sleeping pills he had consumed several days earlier. Ward's reasons for killing himself were obvious. He'd been entangled in one of the most notorious scandals ever to hit Britain, having introduced that country's secretary of state for war, John Profumo, to an attractive young woman named Christine Keeler. She subsequently had sex not only with the married Tory official but also with a Russian naval attaché, a concurrence that raised concerns about espionage. The affair almost brought down the government of Harold Macmillan, and in the affair's turbulent wake, Ward, who counted drug dealers and loose women among his associates, was placed on trial for "living off the earnings of prostitution." According to the Times, Ward left behind no fewer than 13 suicide notes. One, written in spidery handwriting to the friend in whose home he was staying, declared, "It's really more than I can stand -- the horror day after day at the court and in the streets — it's not only fear — it's a wish not to let them get me. I'd rather get myself."
In the month that followed the news of Ward's suicide, 1801 people killed themselves in the United States. Most of their deaths weren't announced on the front page of the New York Times, and if you had asked leading sociologists of the day whether Ward's well-publicized act of self-destruction had affected the subsequent American total, they would have said no. Almost 70 years earlier, the French pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim had declared that imitation does not increase the national level of suicide; he believed that a lack of social cohesiveness instead explained why the vast majority of people kill themselves. For three-quarters of the 20th Century, most scholars accepted that.
But in the month after Ward killed himself, the number of Americans who killed themselves in fact was higher than normal -- 160 more deaths than one would have expected from looking at the numbers in the same time frame in the preceding and succeeding years. In the month after actress Marilyn Monroe's naked body was found lifeless next to an empty bottle of Nembutal sleeping pills, the number of suicides among Americans jumped 12 percent (197 more deaths than normal). In fact, spikes followed 26 out of 33 suicides reported on the front page of the New York Times between 1948 and 1967 -- a total of more than 2000 "excess" deaths. The conclusion drawn by David Phillips, the researcher who discovered this statistical pattern, was that suicide indeed can be contagious.
Phillips was teaching at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1974 when he published these findings in the American Sociological Review. "I was proud of the title I gave that paper," he says today. "I named this thing the Werther Effect, after Goethe's famous hero." The famous German author himself was suicidal, Phillips explains, and he wrote his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther as a way of purging himself of his self-destructive feelings. "After the book came out, all sorts of people were said to be copying the fictional hero. And I said, 'Hey, let's see if this works in real life as well as in fiction.' "
Shortly after his first Werther Effect paper was published, Phillips joined the sociology faculty at the University of California San Diego, where he remains today. Over the past 30 years, he has discovered all sorts of things relating to death. He found "that suicide stories were followed not only by spikes in suicide but also spikes in automobile accidents as well. And particularly by spikes in single-car accidents. Isn't that neat?" Phillips exclaims. It's a rhetorical question he poses often. "The more publicity given to the story, the greater the increase, and the increase came mainly where the publicity occurred. In the case of the auto data, I was able to show that after a young guy had his suicide story on the front page, the deaths of young drivers went up particularly. There was a relationship. The age of the person crashing just after the story was predictable from the age of the person dying in the story! But that was true only if you looked at the driver deaths that occurred after the first story. You could not predict the age of the passengers dying. Isn't that neat?" The ages of drivers who crashed just before the suicide story also were not predictable. And "if you looked at multiple-car crashes where presumably at least one driver didn't want to die, the age of the drivers was not neatly predictable from the age of the person who had committed suicide." In sum, all the data suggested that some of the single-car crashes were in fact suicides. "It was a beautiful, beautiful finding," Phillips enthuses.
That study was published in the journal Science. It was the first time his parents noticed that he'd published something, Phillips jokes. Both his mother and father were public-health physicians born in South Africa. Although they wanted each of their four children to become doctors too, none did, but Phillips suggests that having his work published in prestigious science and medical journals somewhat made up for that. In South Africa, "Their way of expressing their liberal politics was to go into public health and cater exclusively to nonwhite populations," the professor recalls. In the mid-'50s, when his parents had given up on the possibility of South Africa turning into a true democracy, they joined a wave of other liberal South African physicians fleeing to the United States and settled in Boston. Twelve and a half years old at the time his family immigrated, Phillips recalls that "we were never alone in that house. There were always [other] immigrating families staying with us and being settled. It was a very nice experience," and it echoed his mother's own youth, he adds. "Her parents having come from Lithuania, in all the years that she grew up in her house in South Africa, she was never alone."