James Van Gundia Neel (March 22, 1915 – February 1, 2000) was an American geneticist who played a key role in the development of human genetics as a field of research in the United States. He made important contributions to the emergence of genetic epidemiology and pursued an understanding of the influence of environment on genes. In his early work, he studied sickle-cell disease and thalassemia conducted research on the effects of radiation on survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. In 1956, Neel established the University of Michigan Department of Genetics, the first department of human genetics at a medical school in the United States. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971.
Neel developed the "thrifty gene hypothesis" that paleolithic humans, facing long periods of hunger punctuated by brief periods of food surplus, would have adapted genetically by processing fats and carbohydrates more efficiently during feast periods, to be physiologically resilient during periods of famine. Neel believed that this genetic adaptation might have created a predisposition to type 2 diabetes mellitus. This theory was later discredited by research conducted by Neel himself.
Of particular interest to Neel was an understanding of the human genome in an evolutionary light, a concept he addressed in his fieldwork with cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon among the Yanomamo and Xavante in Brazil and Venezuela. His involvement in this fieldwork came under scrutiny in the Darkness in El Dorado controversy, a scandal in anthropology that broke in 2000 involving numerous allegations of unethical research that threatened serious damage to Neel's reputation. The accusation is that Neel deliberately injected South American natives with virulent measles vaccine to spark off an epidemic which killed hundreds and probably thousands. However, these claims against him were never substantiated with any evidence, and it was found later that the measles outbreak predated his arrival. The majority of the allegations in Darkness in El Dorado have since been found to have been fabricated by the author.
Neel attended the College of Wooster with a degree in biology in 1935 and went on to receive his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester.
Neel was deeply involved with a number of prominent organizations through the course of his career, including, but not limited to: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, National Research Council, Pan-American Health Organization, Radiation Effects Research Foundation, University of Michigan, and World Health Organization.
He testified several times before committees and sub-committees of the United States Congress as an expert witness regarding the long-term effects of radiation on human populations.
The professional papers of James V. Neel are held in the archives of the Library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, PA.