Man of Australia humbled 1988 and William McBride

Among the first to describe the teratogenic effects of thalidomide on the human fetus,William McBride, a Sydney obstetrician, had been honoured by a national subscription enabling him to set up and direct a private research institute, Foundation 41. Here in 1982 a junior scientist, Phil Vardy, asked his boss about a large number of discrepancies between the details printed in a paper in the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences and those in the experiments on rabbits he had participated in.

These so-called results made hyoscine (an anticholinergic drug used in travel sickness preparations) seemingly a teratogen. A version of the paper was submitted in evidence in a court case in the USA, where McBride was appearing as an expert witness alleging that a related preparation, Debendox/Bendectin had caused fetal deformities. Given the costs of the defence, the drug was withdrawn from the market, although no suit was ever won.

Once he was certain that he was dealing with scientific fraud, Vardy confronted McBride, but got nowhere - eventually he and most of the other junior scientists at the foundation left for other jobs. Rather later, Norman Swan, a medically qualified journalist and broadcaster, met Vardy and was shown the drafts of the paper and the progressive changes in the data. Swan made a radio documentary, which was broadcast in December 1987 but, despite the furore, it was clear that the Australian scientific community lacked procedures for dealing with such accusations - especially since Foundation 41 was a private institution, with McBride as its head. It took six months before the calls for an independent inquiry were met. This, chaired by the former Chief Justice of Australia, Sir Henry Gibbs, found that McBride had indeed committed scientific fraud, whereupon he resigned, only to be reinstated after the foundation's board had been ousted. Eventually, after a prolonged hearing, which cost both sides millions of dollars, and where in 1991 McBride admitted to publishing false and misleading data, the Medical Tribunal of New South Wales found him guilty of scientific fraud. This was in February 1993 and it took the tribunal another five months to strike him off the Medical Register.

This case (which again is a condensed account from the highly instructive article by Norman Swan in the second edition of this book21), illustrates three main points:

• Even though cases of scientific fraud had been reported in other countries carrying out major research, and mechanisms devised to deal with them, Australia was still largely without proposed procedures.

• There was a particularly difficult problem where an institution's governance was in private hands and, moreover, where it was its director who was accused.

• Finally, it illustrates how far even distinguished workers are prepared to go to vindicate a thesis - something that Sir Peter Medawar called the

"Messianic complex" (which he regarded as the most important cause of fraud of the lot).3

Having become obsessed by the idea that many agents might be teratogenic and constitute an unrecognised hazard to the fetus, McBride went to extreme lengths to prove this. Indeed, in an earlier incident he had tried to implicate imipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant, as a teratogen, again without any evidence.

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