Today, 25 September, is the first anniversary of the needless death of Stefan Grimm. This post is intended as a memorial.
He should be remembered, in the hope that some good can come from his death.
On 1 December 2014, I published the last email from Stefan Grimm, under the title “Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm“. Since then it’s been viewed 196,000 times. The day after it was posted, the server failed under the load.
Since than, I posted two follow-up pieces. On December 23, 2014 “Some experiences of life at Imperial College London. An external inquiry is needed after the death of Stefan Grimm“. Of course there was no external inquiry.
And on April 9, 2015, after the coroner’s report, and after Imperial’s internal inquiry, "The death of Stefan Grimm was “needless”. And Imperial has done nothing to prevent it happening again".
The tragedy featured in the introduction of the HEFCE report on the use of metrics.
“The tragic case of Stefan Grimm, whose suicide in September 2014 led Imperial College to launch a review of its use of performance metrics, is a jolting reminder that what’s at stake in these debates is more than just the design of effective management systems.”
“Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods ”
I had made no attempt to contact Grimm’s family, because I had no wish to intrude on their grief. But in July 2015, I received, out of the blue, a hand-written letter from Stefan Grimm’s mother. She is now 80 and living in Munich. I was told that his father, Dieter Grimm, had died of cancer when he was only 59. I also learned that Stefan Grimm was distantly related to Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Gebrüder Grimm.
The letter was very moving indeed. It said "Most of the infos about what happened in London, we got from you, what you wrote in the internet".
I responded as sympathetically as I could, and got a reply which included several of Stefan’s drawings, and then more from his sister. The drawings were done while he was young. They show amazing talent, but by the age of 25 he was too busy with science to expoit his artistic talents.
With his mother’s permission, I reproduce ten of his drawings here, as a memorial to a man who whose needless death was attributable to the very worst of the UK university system. He was killed by mindless and cruel "performance management", imposed by Imperial College London. The initial reaction of Imperial gave little hint of an improvement. I hope that their review of the metrics used to assess people will be a bit more sensible,
His real memorial lies in his published work, which continues to be cited regularly after his death.
His drawings are a reminder that there is more to human beings than getting grants. And that there is more to human beings than science.
Click the picture for an album of ten of his drawings. In the album there are also pictures of two books that were written for children by Stefan’s father, Dieter Grimm.
Dated Christmas eve,1979 (age 16)
Well well. It seems that Imperial are having an "HR Showcase: Supporting our people" on 15 October. And the introduction is being given by none other than Professor Martin Wilkins, the very person whose letter to Grimm must bear some responsibility for his death. I’ll be interested to hear whether he shows any contrition. I doubt whether any employees will dare to ask pointed questions at this meeting, but let’s hope they do.
Most of what I have learned of Stefan Grimm’s tragic story has come from your blog. While I think it is very likely that Stefan was indeed subject to the kind of grossly unfair and bullying treatment that he described in his posthumous email, I still do not think that the managers involved should be blamed for his death. Stefan’s most extreme response to the turmoil in his professional life could not have been predicted.
In some sense I think Stefan must have been quite naïve – there are surely mechanisms available to an academic by which he can challenge any unfair or bullying treatment that he believes he is being subject to. It is interesting that it did not occur to him to seek either emotional or procedural support from the relevant groups both within and outside the university during his difficult period.
My best guess would be that Stefan had never found himself in such a position before and so did not know how to respond or who to seek help from.
I can’t agree. Do you really think that the value of a scientist’s work can be measured by the amount of money they get in grants? To use grant income as a proxy for quality is not only baseless, but it also defrauds the taxpayer. And it occasionally kills people.
I believe that Andrew Huxley (who got Nobel prize for discovering how the nerve impulse works) never had a grant. Should he have been fired?
I should make it clear that the managers who must take responsibility are senior academics. The HR people who implement the policies are just obeying orders (though that Nuremberg defence can’t exonerate them entirely).
The problem with your argument is that the people to whom you say he should have appealed are the very people who were bullying him. An appeal would have been a waste of time.
David, thank you for this tribute and for posting Stefan’s drawings. 25 September 2014 was marked by the loss of a professor couldn’t take the way professors are treated at Imperial College. 26 September 2014 was marked by the loss of 43 students at Ayotzinapa, in Guerrero, Mexico who were protesting to improve the conditions of living in their country. Appropriate improvements in governance have not been forthcoming on either side (Imperial College or Mexico’s government). Not yet.
AJSTaunton: “there are surely mechanisms available to an academic by which he can
challenge any unfair or bullying treatment that he believes he is being
These mechanisms don’t exist at Imperial College London.
“It is interesting that it did not occur to him to seek either emotional
or procedural support from the relevant groups both within and outside
the university during his difficult period.“
Research staff are treated as chattel by the management. Any attempts to seek support outside of their respective fiefdoms will be met with a strong dressing down. If one persists in seeking outside support, “informal” performance review procedures will be applied.
At least that was my experience.
Adrian J. Chung
Your comments seem to be consistent with many others that I’ve had from Imperial, including some from people who still work there, I collated some of them in an earlier post.
Thanks for posting these pictures. I’m not a scientist, but I am a fan of illustration, and all I can say is, what a talent and what a heartbreaking loss.
I couldn’t resist checking out the pictures from the time of your son’s birth, too, because I have a son who is almost exactly the same age as yours. My son was a hefty 8 and a half pounds at birth. Today, he’s an inch under six foot. Your son was, what, a couple of pounds? And today he’s six foot seven (and an excellent athlete to boot). If your boy was stunted by premature birth, well, perhaps it’s just as well! Just kidding. He obviously wasn’t–thanks entirely to science-based medicine.
I’m joking around, but the truth is that between these pictures by Prof. Grimm and the photos of your son, I find myself absolutely enraged–by both managerialism and the quacks who would, if they had their way, subject humans to the kind of loss and suffering we had before modern medicine.
Anyway, I’ve been a long time reader and it’s about time I thanked you for the work you’ve done to combat quackery. And managerialism. They spring from the same rotten roots.
Thanks very much indeed for those kind remarks.
Both my son and my wife (who spent 4 months in hospital) were undoubtedly saved by the NHS. My son was 1.4 kg (3.1 lb) at birth, but thanks to the special care baby unit at UCLH, he’s done fine, If anyone is interested you can read about it here, or go directly to the picture album.