Shock horror start of the modern story 1974 and Summerlin

The modern story really starts only in 1974 when, at the Sloan-Kettering institute in New York, William Summerlin faked transplantation results, darkening transplanted skin patches in white mice with a black felt-tip pen, and alleging that human corneas had been successfully transplanted into rabbits. Sir Peter Medawar, who was present at the latter demonstration, has given a good and amusing account of prevailing attitudes at the time, which led fellow scientists to keep quiet about results they just did not believe.3 Admitting that he had been a moral coward at the time, Medawar said that he believed that the whole demonstration was either a confidence trick or a hoax. Though subsequently Summerlin's boss, the celebrated immunologist Robert Good, resigned from the directorship of the Institute, the general reaction wasn't the shock horror that research fraud was to evoke later: instead, there was a general feeling that Summerlin must have had a nervous breakdown through overwork, and he was sent away on a year's sick leave, and on full pay.

Only after the series of anni horribili - the year-by-year revelations of dishonest practices - did the US scientific community come to recognise that a small amount of fraud was a feature of scientific research. So, among others, we had Vijay Soman, a diabetologist who plagiarised parts of a paper sent to his boss for peer review; John Darsee a cardiologist with numerous papers and conference abstracts all based on invented results; Robert Slutsky, a radiologist, who at one time was publishing one paper every 10 days, many based on faked results. The circumstances were also unexpected: not only did all work in major centres - Soman at Yale, Darsee at Harvard, and Slutsky at the University of California, San Diego - but they also involved others, sometimes distinguished seniors, as co-authors of the fraudulent papers.

Such cases gave rise to soul-searching, official inquiries and recommendations (some described elsewhere in this book). However, before I shall describe the reactions, let us look again at 1975, the year in which the Summerlin case excited so much attention. To search carefully in the history of any topics is almost always to find an antecedent case to the classic "first" description. With HIV/AIDS, for example, we now know of instances well before the "official" first case of the airline steward in the 1980s. In Britain the fraudster reported in 1975 was probably forgotten because he was one of several cases of a variety of unprofessional behaviour coming before the GMC, reported only in the back pages of the BMJ. Nevertheless, the case of Dr Sedgwick14 shared with subsequent cases what was subsequently to be seen, incorrectly, as a major feature of scientific fraud in Britain - falsification of data for a multicentre drug trial, involving a general practitioner taking part for the money. Unfortunately, this and the early later cases enabled the grandees of the British Establishment to inhibit future discussions by saying that any fraud involved only ill-qualified family doctors practising a poor standard of medicine and motivated by greed, and that fraud in academia did not occur.

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