Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Memory Hole (2 November): The undoing of a thalidomide hero

McBride letter to Lancet

19 years ago today: The undoing of William McBride, Thalidomide hero

On 2 November 1988 William McBride was found guilty of research misconduct and resigned from his research post in Australia. Twenty fine years earlier Mcbride had been the hero of thalidomide. He published a landmark letter in The Lancet on December 16th 1961 pointing out a curious coincidence he had noticed. He is credited with identifying the dangers of the drug.

His later research was problematical. The 1988 report stated: "we are forced to conclude that Dr. McBride did publish statements which he either knew were untrue or which he did no genuinely believe to be true, and in that respect was guilty of scientific fraud".

There are several illustrative aspects of this case:
  1. McBride was also de-registered as a medical doctor. The de-registration was reversed in 1998 on the perverse basis that "his deregistration occurred as a result of work he did as a researcher, and not because of work he did as a medical practitioner". There were many reasons to restore McBride, but this was not an appropriate reason. What this says is that damaging patients through deliberately faulty research is acceptable because medical research and science are not part of being a doctor.
  2. His exposure as a fraud was only as a result of the tireless work of the journalist Dr Norman Swan who broadcast about the fraud in December 1987. Sadly (and despite platitudes to the contrary), the mechanisms of science, journals, peer review and institutional procedures have demonstrated their inability to restrain fraudsters with any degree of reliability or honesty. In the case of McBride, institutional investigation was only launched after massive media exposure. The Australian Journal of Biological Sciences had already declined to publish a letter sent by McBride's colleagues Vardy and French. When Vardy had confronted McBride, he was sacked. The public press is likely to remain an important safeguard.
For additional useful notes see Fraud and Australian academics and Scientific fraud and the power structure of science both by Professor Brian Martin.

This is a sad but illustrative case given the very real contributions of McBride.

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