On Monday evening (8th January 2018), I got an email from Ben van der Merwe, a UCL student who works as a reporter for the student newspaper, London Student. He said
“Our investigation has found a ring of academic psychologists associated with Richard Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly to be holding annual conferences at UCL. This includes the UCL psychologist professor James Thompson”.
He asked me for comment about the “London Conference on Intelligence”. His piece came out on Wednesday 10th January. It was a superb piece of investigative journalism. On the same day, Private Eye published a report on the same topic.
I had never heard about this conference, but it quickly became apparent that it was a forum for old-fashioned eugenicists of the worst kind. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that neither I, nor anyone else at UCL that I’ve spoken to had heard of these conferences because they were surrounded by secrecy. According to the Private Eye report:
“Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute and asked not to share the information"
The conference appears to have been held at least twice before. The programmes for the 2015 conference [download pdf] and the 2016 conference [download pdf] are now available, but weren’t public at the time. They have the official UCL logo across the top despite the fact that Thompson has been only an honorary lecturer since 2007.
A room was booked for the conference through UCL’s external room booking service. The abstracts are written in the style of a regular conference. It’s possible that someone with no knowledge of genetics (as is likely to be the case for room-booking staff) might have not spotted the problem.
The huge problems are illustrated by the London Student piece, which identifies many close connections between conference speakers and far-right, and neo-nazi hate groups.
"[James Thompson’s] political leanings are betrayed by his public Twitter account, where he follows prominent white supremacists including Richard Spencer (who follows him back), Virginia Dare, American Renaissance, Brett Stevens, the Traditional Britain Group, Charles Murray and Jared Taylor.”
“Thompson is a frequent contributor to the Unz Review, which has been described as “a mix of far-right and far-left anti-Semitic crackpottery,” and features articles such as ‘America’s Jews are Driving America’s Wars’ and ‘What to do with Latinos?’.
His own articles include frequent defences of the idea that women are innately less intelligent than men (1, 2, 3,and 4), and an analysis of the racial wage gap which concludes that “some ethnicities contribute relatively little,” namely “blacks.”
“By far the most disturbing of part of Kirkegaard’s internet presence, however, is a blog-post in which he justifies child rape. He states that a ‘compromise’ with paedophiles could be:
“having sex with a sleeping child without them knowing it (so, using sleeping medicine. If they don’t notice it is difficult to see how they cud be harmed, even if it is rape. One must distinguish between rape becus the other was disconsenting (wanting to not have sex), and rape becus the other is not consenting, but not disconsenting either.”
The UCL Students’ Union paper, Cheesegrater, lists some of James Thompson’s tweets,including some about brain size in women
It’s interesting that these came to light on the same day that I learned that the first person to show that there was NO correlation between brain size and intelligence was Dr Alice Lee, in 1901 [download pdf].
Alice Lee was the first woman to get a PhD in mathematics from UCL and she was working in the Galton laboratory, under Karl Pearson. Pearson was a great statistician but also a eugenicist. It was good to learn that he supported women in science at a time when that was almost unknown.
What’s been done so far?
After I’d warned UCL of the impending scandal, they had time to do some preliminary investigation. An official UCL announcement appeared on the same day (10 Jan, 2018) as the articles were published.
“Our records indicate the university was not informed in advance about the speakers and content of the conference series, as it should have been for the event to be allowed to go ahead”
“We are an institution that is committed to free speech but also to combatting racism and sexism in all forms.”
"We have suspended approval for any further conferences of this nature by the honorary lecturer and speakers pending our investigation into the case."
That is about as good as can be expected. It remains to be seen why the true nature of the conferences was not spotted, and it remains to be seen why someone like James Thompson was an honorary senior lecturer at UCL. Watch this space.
How did it happen
But both of these videos are about his views on disaster psychology (Chilean miners, and Japanese earthquake, respectively). Neither gives any hint of his extremist political views. To discover them you’d have to delve into his twitter account (@JamesPsychol) or his writings on the unz site. It’s not surprising that they were missed.
I hope we’ll know more soon about how these meetings slipped under the radar. Until recently, they were very secret. But then six videos of talks at the 2017 meeting were posted on the web, by the organisers themselves. Perhaps they were emboldened by the presence of an apologist for neo-nazis in the White House, and by the government’s support for Toby Young, who wrote in support of eugenics. The swing towards far-right views in the UK, in the USA and in Poland, Hungary and Turkey, has seen a return to public discussions of views that have been thought unspeakable since the 1930s. See, for example, this discussion of eugenics by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson with Toby Young, under the alarming heading "Eugenics is back".
The London Conference on Intelligence channel used the UCL logo, and it was still public on 10th January. It had only 49 subscribers. By 13th January it had been taken down (apparently by its authors). But it still has a private playlist with four videos which have been viewed only 36 times (some of which were me). Before it vanished, I made a copy of Emil Kirkegard’s talk, for the record.
Freedom of speech
Incidents like this pose difficult problems, especially given UCL’s past history. Galton and Pearson supported the idea of eugenics at the beginning of the 20th century, as did George Bernard Shaw. But modern geneticists at the Galton lab have been at the forefront in showing that these early ideas were simply wrong.
UCL has, in the past, rented rooms for conferences of homeopaths. Their ideas are deluded and sometimes dangerous, but not illegal. I don’t think they should be arrested, but I’d much prefer that their conferences were not at UCL.
A more serious case occurred on 26 February 2008. The student Islamic Society invited representatives of the radical Islamic creationist, Adnan Oktar, to speak at UCL. They were crowing that the talk would be held in the Darwin lecture theatre (built in the place formerly occupied by Charles Darwin’s house on Gower Street). In the end, the talk was allowed to go ahead, but it was moved by the then provost to the Gustave Tuck lecture theatre, which is much smaller, and which was built from a donation by the former president of the Jewish Historical Society. See more accounts here, here and here. It isn’t known what was said, so there is no way to tell whether it was illegal, or just batty.
It is very hard to draw the line between hate talk and freedom of speech. There was probably nothing illegal about what was said at the Intelligence Conferences. It was just bad science, used to promote deeply distasteful ideas..
Although, in principle, renting a room doesn’t imply any endorsement, in practice all crackpot organisations love to use the name of UCL to promote their cause. That alone is sufficient reason to tell these people to find somewhere else to promote their ideas.
Follow up in the media
The real story
Recently some peope have demanded that the names of Galton and Pearson should be expunged from UCL.
There would be a case for that if their 19th century ideas were still celebrated, just as there is a case for removing statues that celebrate confederate generals in the southern USA. Their ideas about measurement and statistics are justly celebrated. But their ideas about eugenics are not celebrated.
On the contrary, it is modern genetics, done in part by people in the Galton lab, that has shown the wrongness of 19th century views on race. If you want to know the current views of the Galton lab, try these. They could not be further from Thompson’s secretive pseudoscience.
Steve Jones’ 2015 lecture “Nature, nurture or neither: the view from the genes”,
Or check the writing of UCL alumnus, Adam Rutherford: “Why race is not a thing, according to genetics”,
or, from Rutherford’s 2017 article
“We’ve known for many years that genetics has profoundly undermined the concept of race”
“more and more these days, racists and neo-Nazis are turning to consumer genetics to attempt to prove their racial purity and superiority. They fail, and will always fail, because no one is pure anything.”
“the science that Galton founded in order to demonstrate racial hierarchies had done precisely the opposite”
Or read this terrific account of current views by Jacob A Tennessen “Consider the armadillos".
These are accounts of what geneticists now think. Science has shown that views expressed at the London Intelligence Conference are those of a very small lunatic fringe of pseudo-scientists. But they are already being exploited by far-right politicians.
It would not be safe to ignore them.
15 January 2018. The involvement of Toby Young
The day after this was posted, my attention was drawn to a 2018 article by the notorious Toby Young. In it he confirms the secretiveness of the conference organisers.
“I discovered just how cautious scholars in this ﬁeld can be when I was invited to attend a two-day conference on intelligence at University College London by the academic and journalist James Thompson earlier this year. Attendees were only told the venue at the last minute – an anonymous antechamber at the end of a long corridor called ‘Lecture
Room 22’ – and asked not to share the information with anyone else.”
More importantly,it shows that Toby Young has failed utterly to grasp the science.
“You really have to be pretty stubborn to dispute that general cognitive ability is at least partly genetically based.”
There is nobody who denies this.
The point is that the interaction of nature and nurture is far more subtle than Young believes, and that makes attempts to separate them quantitatively futile. He really should educate himself by looking at the accounts listed above (The real story)
16 January 2018. How UCL has faced its history
Before the current row about the “London Intelligence Conference”, UCL has faced up frankly to its role in the development of eugenics. It started at the height of Empire, in the 19th century and continued into the early part of the 20th century. The word “eugenics” has not been used at UCL since it fell into the gravest disrepute in the 1930s, and has never been used since WW2. Not, that is, until Robert Thompson and Toby Young brought it back. The history has been related by curator and science historian, Subhadra Das. You can read about it, and listen to episodes of her podcast, at “Bricks + Mortals, A history of eugenics told through buildings“. Or you can listen to her whole podcast.
Although Subhadra Das describes Galton as the Victorian scientist that you’ve never heard of. I was certainly well aware of his ideas before I first came to UCL (in 1964). But at that time. I thought of Karl Pearson only as a statistician, and I doubt if I’d even heard of Flinders Petrie. Learning about their roles was a revelation.
17 January 2018.
Prof Semir Zeki has been pointed out to me that it’s not strictly to say “the word “eugenics” has not been used at UCL since it fell into the gravest disrepute in the 1930s”. It’s true to say that nobody advocated it but the chair of Eugenics was not renamed the chair of Human Genetics until 1963. This certainly didn’t imply approval. Zeki tells me that it’s holder “Lionel Penrose, when he mentioned his distaste for the title, saying that it was a hangover from the past, and should be changed”.
After an interchange on Twitter about how blogs get noticed, I commented that the best thing for me was being thrown off the UCL web site by Malcolm Grant, and the subsequent support that I got from Ben Goldacre. I am a big fan of just about everything that Goldacre has done. So are a lot of other people and his support was crucial.
When I looked up his 2007 post, I found a lot of links were now broken, and some characters didn’t render properly. So, as a matter of historical record, I’m reproducing the whole post with updated links where possible.
Goldacre’s comments, of course, greatly exaggerated my virtues. But they were very useful at the time, they quadrupled my readership overnight, and I’m eternally grateful to him.
[Update: Letter from Provost below]
Saturday June 9, 2007
I’ve always said you’d get a lot more kids interested in science if you told them it involves fighting – which of course it does. This week, for example, Professor David Colquhoun FRS – one of the most eminent scientists in the UK – has been forced to remove his quackbusting blog from the UCL servers where it has lived for many years, after complaints from disgruntled alternative therapists.
They objected, for example, to his use of the word “gobbledygook” to describe Red Clover as a “blood cleanser” or a “cleanser of the lymphatic system”. Somebody from the “European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association” complained that he’d slightly misrepresented one aspect of herbalists’ practice. One even complained about Colquhoun infringing copyright, simply for quoting the part of their website that he was examining. They felt, above all, that this was an inappropriate use of UCL facilities.
Now I don’t want to get into the to and fro here, but it is striking that none of them engaged the Prof himself on the issue of the ideas. In fact, they all ran behind his back to the Provost, or rather, to teacher; and the Provost, after serving up a sterling defense of academic freedom in responses to them, quietly asked Colquhoun to take his blog elsewhere, on the grounds that it was bringing the university too much flak. Rousing defenses of Colquhoun have already been written by Professors from Stanford, and senior academics from the UK. [Some are linked here, I’ve got the rest archived. The provost’s initial letter was actually rather stirring]
This episode reveals some unfortunate contrasts. Firstly, in a world where most orthodox "public engagement with science" activity consists of smug, faux radical "science meets art" projects where ballet dancers watch each other prance about in brain scanners (and I am hardly caricaturing here) Colquhoun was showing the world what science really does.
He took dodgy scientific claims, or “hypotheses” as we call them in the trade, and examined the experimental evidence for them, in everyday language, with humour and verve. For all that being a world expert on single ion channels might make Colquhoun glamorous to me, I would say his blog is a bit more of a treat for the wider public, and arguably a rather good use of the time and resources of a public servant who has devoted his entire life to academia, on its relatively low wages, never once working for industry. Sharing ideas is an employment perk in academia.
Secondly, giving special attention to a blog shows that we may not have got to grips with new forms of social media yet. His blog is the problem in hand, but I’ve heard Prof Colquhoun speak about quackery in UCL lecture theatres. Was the electricity, the publicity material, the room rent, a misuse of public funds and resources? I’ve done talks myself, in universities and schools: are they all guilty of wasting public money on robust, challenging, childish and sarcastic discussion of ideas?
But lastly, if you’re worrying about the appropriate use of a science department’s resources, Prof Colquhoun is the bloke who made the fuss in Nature -the biggest academic journal in the world – about British universities giving away science degrees in quackery. The people who run the BSc "science" degrees in these pseudoscientific alternative therapies have still refused to answer questions from David, and from me, about what "science" they teach in their science degrees.
I notice that nobody is making the jokers behind these Quackery BSc’s take their gobbledygook -a word that sounds best being snorted through Colquhoun’s impressive nasal hair – off university webservers. Although courses in gobbledygook make money. And they are flattered by the Prince. And nobody can criticise them, because they actually refuse to tell us what they’e teaching. Now you tell me who should be booted out of a seat of learning.
Please send your bad science to email@example.com
Prof Colquhoun doesn’t really have impressive nasal hair, I just didn’t want the column to come across as too gushing. His quack page is definitely worth rooting about on:
And as you can see, he needs WordPress advice even more than I do. Also his politics feed is quite jolly and if I could work out, for example, how to link directly to the Greenhalgh story, I would. Rummage away.
[DC edit: one of the best side effects of the move was getting a proper blog, rather than a bloated web page. The old politics page is archived and the Greenhalgh story link now works]
Letter from Provost:
This is an email from the Provost to someone who emailed him this morning, which he has allowed me to post, I understand he will be sending something similar to those who email him. It’s very much worth reading. I believe – as you can imagine – that an emeritus professor of pharmacology in his seventies making the link between science and real world claims for free in everyday language is a treat, but of course I have absolutely no doubt that Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activity did pose difficulties for UCL.
These difficulties were thrown into sharp relief by the fact that those who disagreed with Colquhoun enacted their grievances through the Freedom of Information Act, UK libel law, copyright law, complaints about the use of academic resources, and efforts to lean on senior figures from the university, rather than engaging on the science, or contacting Colquhoun.
There is a balance to be struck on whether Colquhoun’s public engagement with science activities were valued enough to be worth defending (through the miracle ofinstant context you can decide for yourself) and that is of course a decision for UCL to make.
If you are going to write to the Provost I hope I can rely on you to be polite and understanding about this balance, and understand that he’s a busy man who has already been leant on over what ideally should never have been a Provost’s concerns at such an early stage.
If UCL had behaved in the way you seem to believe then your comments would be wholly justified, but of course it hasn’t.
Allow me to supply the missing facts. I;m copying this message also to Ben Goldacre and David Colquhoun.
Academic freedom is a fundamental precept of any institution fit to style itself a university. Like all freedoms, it comes with conditions, largely those that are necessary to underpin the freedoms of other people under the law, including criminal law, human rights, copyright, the laws of tort and contract, and statutory regulation.
When a university hosts a website it is taken to be the publisher of the material on it. That means that it is liable in law for any breaches of copyright, data protection and defamation. It is possible of course to engage in robust academic debate without infringing any of these rules.
But breaches of all of them have now been claimed in legal claims against UCL regarding David Colquhoun’s website, and with good reason.
A university can of course safeguard its position by moderating the content of the website. That is what I assume the Guardian does with its various blogs, and certainly is what it does with all its editorial content. Nobody sees that as a major assault on the freedom of expression of the press. To do this in a university would of course raise concerns that it constituted an incursion into academic freedom, and I also think it would be completely impractical.
Yet not to take appropriate action to protect UCL would be to expose us to potentially expensive legal action in respect of activity over which we have absolutely no control.
For the most part, academic websites don’t infringe the law. Indeed, in over 35 years as an academic this is the first such instance that I have any detailed knowledge of. If it has unlawful material that the author believes is essential for conveying his/her message, then there is no reason why they shouldn’t host it themselves and assume the consequences.
UCL has taken legal advice, which is to the effect that the website does contain material which breaks the law in several respects. Some of them have now been fixed: alleged breaches of copyright and data protection. But libel proceedings are now also in play, and Professor Colquhoun and I have a meeting on Monday with a senior defamation QC to explore the potential extent of UCL’s vicarious liability for certain statements on the website, and our possible options. There is also the question of Professor Colquhoun’s own personal liability, but of course a plaintiff will always prefer to go against a major institution because of our deep pockets.
On the basis of the advice that I receive then I shall have to determine UCL’s future course of action, and Professor Colquhoun likewise.
Just to be absolutely clear:
The item that has caused the fuss and complaint is this one. It has not been changed since the complaint, so you can decide for yourself how awful it is.
If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Scienceand Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
I have always been insanely proud to work at UCL. My first job was as an assistant lecturer. The famous pharmacologist, Heinz Otto Schild gave me that job in 1964, and apart from nine years, I have been there ever since. That’s 50 years. I love its godless tradition. I love its multi-faculty nature. And I love its relatively democratic ways (with rare exceptions).
From the start, the intellectual heart of UCL has been the staff Common Room. As I so often say, failing to waste time drinking coffee with people who are cleverer than yourself can seriously damage your career (and your happiness). And there’s no better place for that than the Housman room.
It is there that I met the great statistician Alan Hawkes, without whom much of my research would never have happened. It was there that Hyman Kestelman (among others) gave me informal tutorials on matrix algebra over lunch. It was there where I have met John Sutherland (English), Mary Fulbrook (German), many historians and people from the Slade school of Art. And it was there where, yesterday, I had an illuminating conversation with Steve Jones about the problems of twin studies for measuring heritability.
I was astonished when I arrived at UCL to discover that the Housman room was male only. I’d just come from Edinburgh which still had separate men’s and women’s student unions and some men-only bars. But Edinburgh also had a wonderful staff club, open to all. It’s true that UCL had also a women-only common room and a mixed common room, the Haldane room (which is where I went usually). But the biggest and most impressive room, the Housman room, was for men only. I found this very odd in the 1960s, the age of sexual liberation. Reform was in the air in the 1960s.
A lot of other people, not all female, thought it odd too. Direct action was called for (I was in CND at the time). So we’d go into the Housman room with a woman and join the queue for coffee. It never took long before some pompous prat would tap the woman on the shoulder and eject her. I can’t remember now the names of any of the feisty women who braved the lions’ den (perhaps this blog will remind someone).
I had any ally in Brian Woledge. He was Fielden Professor of French at UCL from 1939 (when I was 3) to 1971 so he was on the brink of retirement. I was a young lecturer, but our thinking on segregation was much the same. His obituary in the Guardian says “Of robustly secular beliefs and Fabian views, in important respects he was an heir to the ideals of the Enlightenment”. It’s no wonder we got on well.
In 1967 we proposed a motion at the Housman AGM to desegregate all common rooms. It was defeated. The next year we did it again, and were defeated again.. But at the third attempt, in 1969, we succeeded. I was very happy to have had a small role in upholding UCL’s liberal traditions.
It is now quite impossible to imagine that UCL was segregated. After all, UCL was the first English university to admit women on equal terms to men, in 1878 (the Scots were a bit ahead) And UCL was home to Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 -1971), one of the first two female fellows of the Royal Society, and the first female professor at UCL.
Nevertheless, in the mid-1960s, women were very far from being regarded as equal, even at UCL. At the time, segregation was more common than people now remember.
I was spurred to write this post when Melissa Terras, UCL’s professor of digital humanities, retweeted a reminder that it was in 1967 that a woman first ran in a an official marathon, and suffered physical attack from a male organiser for her temerity.
I was urged to record this history by both Terras and by Lisa Jardine, Director of UCL’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities. So I have done it.
I was very aware of Kathy Switzer at the time, and I’ve no doubt she is part of the reason why I felt strongly about segregation. You can read about the 1967 Boston marathon in her own words. I thought it was a wonderful story, though I wasn’t yet into distance running myself (I was still sailing and boxing).
One of the great thing about marathons is that women and men run in the same race. That means that almost all men have had to get used to being overtaken by very many women. That has been wonderfully good for deflating male egos. When I was training for marathons in the 1980s, my training partner, Annie Briggs was on the elite start -a good hour faster than I could manage.
Now we are accustomed to watching Paula Radcliffe run marathons faster than any but the very best men. She’s the world record holder with the spectacular time of 2 hours 15 min in the 2003 London Marathon (my best is 3 hr 57 min). That’s only a bit over 26 consecutive 5 minute miles. And that’s faster than I could run a single mile at my peak.[Picture from Wikipedia: NYC marathon 2008 2:23:56]
It’s now utterly beyond belief that in the 1960s men were saying that women were too feeble to run 26 miles. It was sheer blind arrogance. After Switzer, progress was fast. In 1972 women were allowed to run in Boston, and within 10 years, the women’s record time had fallen by a full hour. Physiology hadn’t changed, but confidence had.
Of course it wasn’t until the 2012 Olympics that women gained total equality in sport. Everyone who said that women were incapable of competing in combat sports should see Rosi Sexton in action.
She’s the ultimate high-achiever. She’s an accomplished musician (grade 7 cello, ALCM piano) and she played at the Albert Hall with the Reading Youth Orchestra. She went on to get a first in maths (Cambridge, Trinity College), where her tutor was Tim Gowers. Then she did a PhD in theoretical computer science from Manchester (read her thesis). And she’s had a distinguished career as professional athlete, competing at the highest level in MMA. Why? “The other things I did, the music, the maths, just weren’t quite hard enough“.
Not many athletes have a paper in the Journal of Pure and Applied Algebra. I’d be very happy if I could do any one of these things as well as she does.
It could not be more appropriate than to be writng this in the week when the Fields medal was won by a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, for the first time since it started, in 1936. Genetics hasn’t changed since 1936. Confidence has.
UCL mathematician, Helen Wilson, points out the encouragement this will give to female mathematicians.
On 15 July 2017, Maryam Mirzakhani died, at a mere 40 years old. It’s tragic that having achieved so much, against all the odds, the dice rolled the wrong way for her, and cancer destroyed her. Her life will inspire generations to come.
As in marathons, confidence, role models and zeitgeist matter as much as genetics.
It’s examples like these that have made me profoundly suspicious of generalisations about what particular groups of people can and cannot do. Whether it is working class boys. black boys, or women, such generalisations can be shattered over a decade or two, once the zeitgeist changes.
That’s one reason that I am so unsympathetic to the IQ enthusiasts. Great harm has stemmed from the belief that it’s possible to sum up human achievements in a single number. What’s more, it’s a number that measures your resemblance to white male psychologists. It is because politicians believed the over-hyped claims of psychologists in the 1930s, that three-quarters of the population was written off. Much the same thing has happened with women, and with skin colour.
Don’t believe it.
And the job of desegregation may not be entirely finished. In fact now it is harder to combat, since it’s unspoken. Once again, I’m reminded of Peter Lawrence’s essay, The Mismeasurement of Science. Speaking of the perverse incentives and over-competitiveness that has invaded academia, he says
“Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them . Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”
The perverse incentives that make academic life hard for women (and for many men too) are administered by HR departments (with the collusion of mostly elderly male academics). They are the very same people who write fine-sounding diversity documents and lecture you about work-life balance.
It’s time they woke up.
Note. The minutes of Housman AGMs from the 1960s are missing at the moment. If they come to light, this post will be modified accordingly.
29 August 2014
As I’d hoped, this post elicited the name of one of the women who braved the rules and went into the Housman room when it was still men-only. I had an email from Lynn Bindman, and she told me that one of them was Gertrude Falk (1925 – 2008), who had worked in Bernard Katz’s Biophysics Department since 1961.
Gertrude Falk at 76
(Camden New Journal)
"Her indifference to conventions is well illustrated by the occasion when, drinking coffee in the men’s staff common room, at that time still segregated, she responded calmly to the Beadle summoned to escort her out, “well, I am certainly going to finish my coffee first”, and did so at her leisure."
I have another story about Gertrude’s feistiness. Every year the Royal Society has a soirée for fellows and guests. It’s a sort of private view for the Summer Science exhibition. Men are required to dress like penguins despite the heat, and the invitation says "decorations will be worn". The food is good though it’s all a bit pompous for my taste. Some years ago I met Gertrude at a soirée and I saw she was wearing a medal round her neck. I said "have they made you a Dame of the British Empire?". She held up the medal and I saw it said "Erasmus High School Economics Prize". She is why I usually go to the soirée wearing my London Marathon medal.
12 May 2015
Surprising as it seems now that the Housman room excluded women until 1969, there are other UCL institutions that were almost as slow as Oxford and Camridge to join the modern age.
One of these is the Professors’ Dining Club (it isn’t actually restricted to professors). I recall going to one of their dinners in the 1960s, as a guest of Heinz Otto Schild, the then head of Pharmacology, who gave me my first job. He was a lovely man, but I was horrified that it didn’t allow women to join. I recently discovered that its records reveal that it didn’t see the light until 1981. It wasn’t until after that happened that I joined the club. It seems now to be a shameful record.
Last year, I was sent my answer paper for one of my final exams, taken in 1959. This has triggered a bout of shamelessly autobiographical nostalgia.
The answer sheets that I wrote had been kept by one of my teachers at Leeds, Dr George Mogey. After he died in 2003, aged 86, his widow, Audrey, found them and sent them to me. And after a hunt through the junk piled high in my office, I found the exam papers from that year too.
George Mogey was an excellent teacher and a kind man. He gave most of the lectures to medical students, which we, as pharmacy/pharmacology students attended. His lectures were inspirational.
Today, 56 years on, I can still recall vividly his lecture on anti-malarial drugs. At the end he paused dramatically and said “Since I started speaking, 100 people have died from malaria” (I don’t recall the exact number). He was the perfect antidote to people who say you learn nothing from lectures.
Straight after the war (when he had seen the problem of malaria at first hand) he went to work at the Wellcome Research Labs in Beckenham, Kent. The first head of the Wellcome Lab was Henry Dale. It had a distinguished record of basic research as well as playing a crucial role in vaccine production and in development of the safe use of digitalis. In the 1930s it had an important role in the development of proper methods for biological standardisation. This was crucial for ensuring that, for example, each batch of tincture ot digitalis had the same potency (it has been described previously on this blog in Plants as Medicines.
When George Mogey joined the Wellcome lab, its head was J.W. Trevan (1887 – 1956) (read his Biographical Memoir, written by J.H. Gaddum). Trevan’s most memorable contributions were in improving the statistics of biological assays. The ideas of individual effective dose and median effective dose were developed by him. His 1927 paper The Error of Determination of Toxicity is a classic of pharmacology. His advocacy of the well-defined quantity, median effective dose as a replacement for the ill-defined minimum effective dose was influential in the development of proper statistical analysis of biological assays in the 1930s.
Trevan is something of hero to me. And he was said to be very forgetful. Gaddum, in his biographical memoir, recounts this story
“One day when he had lost something and suspected that it had been tidied away by his secretary, he went round muttering ‘It’s all due to this confounded tidiness. It always leads to trouble. I won’t have it in my lab.’ “
Trevan coined the abbreviation LD50 for the median lethal dose of a drug. George Mogey later acquired the car number plate LD50, in honour of Trevan, and his widow, Audrey, still has it (picture on right).
Mogey wrote several papers with Trevan. In 1948 he presented one at a meeting of the Physiological Society. The programme included also A.V. Hill. E.J Denton, Bernhard [sic] Katz, J.Z. Young and Richard Keynes (Keynes was George Henry Lewes Student at Cambridge: Lewes was the Victorian polymath with whom the novelist George Eliot lived, openly unmarried, and a founder of the Physiological Society. He probably inspired the medical content of Eliot’s best known novel, Middlemarch).
The tradition of interest in statistics and biological assay must have rubbed off on me, because the answers I gave in the exam were very much in that tradition. Here is a snippet (click to download the whole answer sheet).
A later answer was about probit analysis, an idea introduced by statistician Chester Bliss (1899–1979) in 1934, as an direct extension of Trevan’s work. (I met Bliss in 1970 or 1971 when I was in Yale -we had dinner, went to a theatre -then back to his apartment where he insisted on showing me his collection of erotic magazines!)
This paper was a pharmacology paper in my first final exam at the end of my third year. The external examiner was Walter Perry, head of pharmacology in Edinburgh (he went on to found the Open University). He had previously been head of Biological Standards at the National Institute for Medical Research, a job in which he had to know some statistics. In the oral exam he asked me a killer question “What is the difference between confidence limits and fiducial limits?”. I had no real idea (and, as I discovered later, neither did he). After that, I went on to do the 4th year where we specialised in pharmacology, and I spent quite a lot of time trying to answer that question. The result was my first ever paper, published in the University of Leeds Medical Journal. I hinted, obliquely, that the idea of fiducial inference was probably Ronald Fisher‘s only real mistake. I think that is the general view now, but Fisher was such a towering figure in statistics that nobody said that straight out (he was still alive when this was written -he died in 1962).
It is well-worth looking at a paper that Fisher gave to the Royal Statistical Society in 1935, The Logic of Inductive Inference. Then, as now, it was the custom for a paper to be followed by a vote of thanks, and a seconder. These, and the subsequent discussion, are all printed, and they could be quite vicious in a polite way. Giving the vote of thanks, Professor A.L. Bowley said
“It is not the custom, when the Council invites a member to propose a vote of thanks on a paper, to instruct him to bless it. If to some extent I play the inverse role of Balaam, it is not without precedent;”
And the seconder, Dr Isserlis, said
“There is no doubt in my mind at all about that, but Professor Fisher, like other fond parents, may perhaps see in his offspring qualities which to his mind no other children possess; others, however, may consider that the offspring are not unique.”
Post-publication peer review was already alive and well in 1935.
I was helped enormously in writing this paper by Dr B.L.Welch (1911 – 1989), whose first year course in statistics for biologists was a compulsory part of the course. Welch was famous particularly for having extended Student’s t distribution to the case where the variances in two samples being compared are unequal (Welch, 1947). He gave his whole lecture with his back to the class while writing what he said on a set of blackboards that occupied the whole side of the room. No doubt he would have failed any course about how to give a lecture. I found him riveting. He went slowly, and you could always check your notes because it was all there on the blackboards.
Walter Perry seemed to like my attempt to answer his question, despite the fact that it failed. After the 4th year final (a single 3 hour essay on drugs that affect protein synthesis) he offered me a PhD place in Edinburgh. He was one of my supervisors, though I never saw him except when he dropped into the lab for a cigarette between committee meetings. While in Edinburgh I met the famous statistician. David Finney, whose definitive book on the Statistics of Biological Assay was an enormous help when I later wrote Lectures on Biostatistics and a great help in getting my first job at UCL in 1964. Heinz Otto Schild. then the famous head of department, had written a paper in 1942 about the statistical analysis of 2+2 dose biological assays, while interned at the beginning of the war. He wanted someone to teach it to students, so he gave me a job. That wouldn’t happen now, because that sort of statistics would be considered too difficult Incidentally, I notice that Schild uses 99% confidence limits in his paper, not the usual 95% limits which make your results look better
It was clear even then, that the basis of statistical inference was an exceedingly contentious matter among statisticians. It still is, but the matter has renewed importance in view of the crisis of reproducibility in science. The question still fascinates me, and I’m planning to update my first paper soon. This time I hope it will be a bit better.
Postscript: some old pictures
While in nostalgic mood, here are a few old pictures. First, the only picture I have from undergraduate days. It was taken on a visit to May and Baker (of sulphonamide fame) in February 1957 (so I must have been in my first year). There were 15 or so in the class for the first three years (now, you can get 15 in a tutorial group). I’m in the middle of the back row (with hair!). The only names that I recall are those of the other two who went into the 4th year with me, Ed Abbs (rightmost on back row) and Stella Gregory (2nd from right, front row). Ed died young and Stella went to Australia. Just in front of me are James Dare (with bow tie) and Mr Nelson (who taught old fashioned pharmacognosy).
James Dare taught pharmaceutics, but he also had a considerable interest in statistics and we did lots of calculations with electromechanical calculators -the best of them was a Monroe (here’s a picture of one with the case removed to show the amazingly intricate mechanism).
Monroe 8N-213 from http://www.science.uva.nl/museum/calclist.php
The history of UCL’s pharmacology goes back to 1905. For most of that time, it’s been a pretty good department. It got top scores in all the research assessments until it was abolished by Malcolm Grant in 2007. That act of vandalism is documented in my diary section.
For most of its history, there was one professor who was head of the department. That tradition ended in 1983,when Humphrey Rang left for Novartis. The established chair was then empty for two years, until Donald Jenkinson, then head of department, insisted with characteristic modesty, that I rather than he should take the chair. Some time during the subsequent reign of David Brown, it was decided to name the chairs, and mine became the A.J. Clark chair. It was decided that the headship of the department would rotate, between Donald, David Brown and me. But when it came to my turn, I decided I was much too interested in single ion channels to spend time pushing paper, and David Brown nobly extended his term. The A.J. Clark chair was vacant after I ‘retired’ in 2004, but in 2014, Lucia Sivilotti was appointed to the chair, a worthy successor in its quantitative tradition.
The first group picture of UCL’s Pharmacology department was from 1972. Heinz Schild is in the middle of the front row, with Desmond Laurence on his left. Between them they dominated the textbook market: Schild edited A.J. Clark’s Pharmacology (now known as Rang and Dale). Laurence wrote a very successful text, Clinical Pharmacology. Click on the picture for a bigger version, with names, as recalled by Donald Jenkinson: (DHJ). I doubt whether many people now remember Ada Corbett (the tea lady) or Frank Ballhatchet from the mechanical workshop. He could do superb work, though the price was to spent 10 minutes chatting about his Land Rover, or listening to reminiscences of his time working on Thames barges. I still have a beautiful 8-way tap that he made. with a jerk-free indexing mechanism.
The second Departmental picture was taken in June 1980. Humphrey Rang was head of department then. My colleagues David Ogden and Steven Siegelbaum are there. In those days we had a tea lady too, Joyce Mancini. (Click pictures to enlarge)
We all know that chiropractors feel pretty desperate, after their job has been revealed as baseless (much more information at ebm-first). Nonetheless it was very surprising when I was alerted by Twitter to the fact that the London Chiropractors were claiming to have been chosen by UCL as a "Centre of Excellence".
That was the heading in the whole page devoted to crowing about this designation. The page, as it was on18th April, can be seen on freezepage.com. They even boast about our 21 Nobel prizewinners, as though they had endorsed chiropractic.
"London Chiropractor has recently been designated as a “Centre of Excellence” by University College London. The University is among the world’s leading universities as can be seen by its ranking in a variety of performance areas. Twenty-one Nobel prizewinners have come from the University’s community".
The triumphalist crowing goes on
"The designation of London Chiropractor as a Centre of Excellence is something that we are sincerely proud of. It distinguishes our clinic while providing impetus to carry on with our multi-disciplinary and evidence based treatment strategies while looking for new ways in which to improve on all aspects of our clinic at the same time and in a continuous manner."
But chiropractic is undoubtedly in deep trouble, after more that 600 complaints were submitted to the General Chiropractic Council (GCC). The GCC was forced to renounce what has always been a central myth of chiropractic, the "subluxation". The fact that most of the complaints have been rejected has revealed huge deficiencies in the GCC (some of which it recently admitted). It also reveals the uselessness of the Council for Health Regulatory Excellence (CHRE).which is meant to supervise them. More details at quackometer, Chiropractors at War with their Regulator, the GCC.
In the words of Richard Brown (president of the BCA) himself,
"The BCA sued Simon Singh personally for libel. In doing so, the BCA began one of the darkest periods in its history; one that was ultimately to cost it financially,"
Needless to say, chiropractors are trying to cash in on the Olympic games, sadly, with a little success. I suppose that invoking UCL. was part of that attempt. Like so many of chiropractors’ attempts to defend themselves, it misfired badly.
The inspection of evidence that followed the attempt by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) to sue Simon Singh showed that he was entirely justified to describe many of their treatments as “bogus” and “without a jot of evidence”.
A quick email to the UCL authorities quickly determined that the claimed endorsement was not true. Attempting to access this page now leads to “page not found". The page vanished on Sunday 22nd April, and a near identical page for the Broadgate Spine and Joint Clinic had already vanished on Friday 20th April. While it is true that two surgeons from UCL’s Institute of Sports Medicine have worked in the same building, they neither use chiropractic nor endorse it.
I’m assured that the alleged endorsement never happened. London Chiropractors won’t say where it came from. It seems that it was simply made up. I think that’s called a lie. I presume it is a sign of the desperation of chiropractors.
The press may like to portray students as irresponsible and revolting . When I visited the occupied Jeremy Bentham room last week, i got a very different impression. That was more than confirmed yesterday (29 November). The students aren’t just sitting around grumbling. They have organised a very impressive series of events. Here is yesterday’s programme.
I volunteered to discuss with them some ideas of what could be done to further their aims. It was the same day that our letter came out in the Daily Telegraph, that pointed out the foolishness of deciding on funding before deciding what form universities should have in the future, I also suggested some possible changes along the lines of those proposed in the Times in October.
I didn’t talk for long and the discussion that followed was lively and constructive. It was about education, not revolt.
I was asked if I’d like to come back a bit later for group discussions, so I did. I found the students had split into groups. It could well have been an academic conference.
There was a cheerful but entirely serious discussion about what universities should be doing, about teaching methods and about research. There was also discussion about how the good atmosphere could be continued when the occupation eventually ends. Perhaps the most obvious thing is that the students were enjoying immensely being thrown together with people from other disciplines, whom they would never have met otherwise. There were two scientists in the group I joined, the rest being from a whole range of disciplines.
It is to the credit of UCL that they haven’t brought in bailiffs or cut off access to toilets. So a lot more sensible than Warwick university’s management for example. An email was shown on the screen from Rex Knight, vice provost (operations) who seems to have been put in charge of mediation. He’s the one who refused to do anything about it when HR were advertising for people trained in that curious form of psychobabble/pyramid selling scheme, neurolinguistic programming. He decined to meet the students. These days, you just can’t get the staff.
You can just walk in and out of the Jeremy Bentham room quite freely. Some students left for lectures and then returned. Others were away that afternoon on a demonstration outside TopShop on Oxford Street. If people like Top Shop owner Philip Green paid the taxes that they should do, the crisis might not be as bad as it is.
And between the earnest intellectual stuff they have fun too. This is the dance-off against the Oxford occupation.
And this is their weekend Ceilidh
Their blog is impressive. as is their organisation. They they have an events organiser with their own email address. You can follow the activities on Twitter @ucloccupation. In just a few days they have picked up more followers on Twitter than I have,
Even the BBC reporter, Sean Coughlan, sees this a something a bit different.
These are well-dressed, articulate youngsters, there’s no damage to the room, and the occupation leaflets are mixed up with sleeping bags and text books about biology and Spanish grammar.
This looks like a revolution that probably does the hoovering when it’s finished. Any stereotypes about rent-a-rioter are way off the mark.
It’s the Hogwarts kids, with their strong sense of right and wrong, who are now putting up the barricades.
And they seem as distant from the old left as they do from the new right.
This could be the best educational experience of the year for some of them, and they were making the most of it.
It is really rather beautiful.
Sad to say. UCL’s management soon managed to lose the moral high ground and went to court to evict the students. Their blog says
On Friday 3rd December two students on behalf of the UCL Occupations attended a hearing to resist the university’s application for a possession order. After almost an hour of legal debate, the judge acknowledged the occupying students’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and concluded that no possession order could be granted without a full hearing of all the legal arguments. The hearing has been adjourned till Tuesday 7th December at 10:30am.
6 December 2010.Hobbled into work, for hospital appointment. The Slade School of Art is now occupied too. The signs are quite, eh, artistic.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS held the established chair of Pharmacology at UCL from 1919 to 1926, when he left for Edinburgh. In the 1920s and 30s, Clark was a great pioneer in the application of quantitative physical ideas to pharmacology. As well as his classic scientific works, like The Mode of Action of Drugs on Cells (1933) he wrote, and felt strongly, about the fraud perpetrated on the public by patent medicine salesmen. In 1938 (while in Edinburgh) he published a slim volume called Patent Medicines. The parallels with today are astonishing.
Alfred Joseph Clark FRS (1885 – 1941)
I was lucky to be given a copy of this book by David Clark, A.J. Clark’s eldest son, who is now 88. I visited him in Cambridge on 17 September 2008, because he thought that, as holder of the A.J. Clark chair at UCL from 1985 to 2004, I’d be a good person to look after this and several other books from his father’s library. They would have gone to the Department of Pharmacology if we still had one, but that has been swept away by mindless administrators with little understanding of how to get good science.
Quotations from the book are in italic, and are interspersed with comments from me.
The book starts with a quotation from the House of Commons Select Committee report on Patent Medicines. The report was submitted to the House on 4 August 1914, so there is no need to explain why it had little effect. The report differs from recent ones in that it is not stifled by the sort of political correctness that makes politicians refer to fraudsters as “professions”.
“2.2 The situation, therefore, as regards the sale and advertisement of proprietary medicines and articles may be summarised as follows:
For all practical purposes British law is powerless to prevent any person from procuring any drug, or making any mixture, whether patent or without any therapeutical activity whatever (as long as it does not contain a scheduled poison), advertising it in any decent terms as a cure for any disease or ailment, recommending it by bogus testimonials and the invented opinions and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians, and selling it under any name he chooses, on payment of a small stamp duty. For any price he can persuade a credulous public to pay.”
Select Committee on Patent Medicines. 1914
“The writer has endeavoured in the present article to analyse the reasons for the amazing immunity of patent medicines form all attempts to curb their activity, to estimate the results and to suggest the obvious measures of reform that are needed.”
|Clark, writing in 1938, was surprised that so little had changed since 1914. What would he have thought if he had known that now, almost 100 years after the 1914 report, the fraudsters are still getting away with it?
Chapter 2 starts thus.
The Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1914 ‘to consider and inquire into the question of the sale of Patent and Proprietary Medicines’ stated its opinion in 28 pages of terse and uncompromising invective. Its general conclusions were as follows:
That the trade in secret remedies constituted a grave and widespread public evil.
That the existing law was chaotic and had proved inoperative and that consequently the traffic in secret remedies was practically uncontrolled.
In particular it concluded ‘”that this is an intolerable state of things and that new legislation to deal with it, rather than merely the amendment of existing laws, is urgently needed in the public interest.”
The “widespread public evil”continues almost unabated, and rather than introduce sensible legislation to cope with it, the government has instead given a stamp of approval for quackery by introducing utterly ineffective voluntary “self-regulation”.
Another Bill to deal with patent medicines was introduced in 1931, without success, and finally in 1936, a Medical and Surgical Appliances (Advertisement) Bill was introduced. This Bill had a very limited scope. Its purpose was to alleviate some of the worst abuses of the quack medicine trade by prohibiting the advertisement of cures for certain diseases such as blindness, Bright’s disease [nephritis] , cancer, consumption [tuberculosis], epilepsy, fits, locomotor ataxy, fits, lupus or paralysis.
The agreement of many interests was secured for this measure. The president of the Advertising Association stated that the proposed Bill would not affect adversely any legitimate trade interest. Opposition to the Bill was, however, whipped up amongst psychic healers, anti-vivisectionists and other opponents of medicine and at the second reading in March 1936, the Bill was opposed and the House was counted out during the ensuing debate. The immediate reason for this fate was that the Bill came up for second reading on the day of the Grand National! This is only one example of the remarkable luck that has attended the patent medicine vendors.
The “remarkable luck” of patent medicine vendors continues to this day, Although, in principle, advertisement of cures for venereal diseases was banned in 1917, and for cancer in 1939, it takes only a few minutes with Google to find that these laws are regularly flouted by quacks, In practice quacks get away with selling vitamin pills for AIDS, sugar pills for malaria and homeopathic pills for rabies, polio anthrax and just about anything else you can think of. Most of these advertisements are contrary to the published codes of ethics of the organisations to which the quack in question belongs but nothing ever happens.
Self-regulation simply does not work, and there is still no effective enforcement even of existing laws..
“It has already been stated that British law allows the advertiser of a secret remedy to tell any lie or make any claim that he fancies will sell his goods and the completeness of this licence is best illustrated by the consideration of a few specific points.
Advertisements for secret remedies very frequently contain a list of testimonials from medical men, which usually are in an anonymous form, stating that ………….. M.D., F.R.C.S., has found the remedy infallible. Occasionally, however, the name and address of a doctor is given and anyone unaware of the vagaries of English law would imagine that such use of a doctor’s name and professional reputation could not be made with impunity without his consent. In 1899, however, the Sallyco Mineral Water Company advertised that ‘Dr. Morgan Dochrill, physician to St. John’s Hospital, London and many of the leading physicians are presenting ‘Sallyco’ as an habitual drink. Dr. Dochrill says nothing has done his gout so much good.
Dr. Dochrill, whose name and title were correctly stated above, sued the company but failed in his case. ”
“The statement that the law does not prevent the recommending of a secret remedy by the use of bogus testimonials and facsimile signatures of fictitious physicians is obviously an understatement since it is doubtful how far it interferes with the use of bogus testimonials from real physicians.”
Dodgy testimonials are still a mainstay of dodgy salesman. One is reminded of the unauthorised citation of testimonials from Dr John Marks and Professor Jonathan Waxman by Patrick Holford to aid his sales of unnecessary vitamin supplements. There is more on this at Holfordwatch.
The man in the street knows that the merits of any article are usually exaggerated in advertisements and is in the habit of discounting a large proportion of such claims, but, outside the realm of secret remedies, the law is fairly strict as regards definite misstatements concerning goods offered for sale and hence the everyday experience of the man in the street does not prepare him for dealing with advertisements which are not merely exaggerations but plain straightforward lies from beginning to end.
Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums. One imagines that no one today would be willing to spend money on pills guaranteed to prevent earthquakes but yet the claims of many of the remedies offered appear equally absurd to anyone with an elementary
knowledge of physiology or even of chemistry. A study of the successes and failures suggests that success depends chiefly on not over-rating the public intelligence. (Page 34)
This may have changed a bit since A.J. Clark was writing in 1938. Now the main clients of quacks seem to be the well-off “worried-well”. But it remains as true as ever that “Scientific training is undoubtedly a handicap in estimating popular gullibility as regards nostrums.” In 2008, it is perhaps more a problem of Ben Goldacre’s dictum ““My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour.”
Clark refers (page 36) to a successful conviction for fraud in the USA in 1917. The subject was a widely advertised ‘get fat quick’ pill that contained lecithin, proteins and sugar. The BMA analysis (in 1912)
suggested that the cost of the ingredients in a box of 30 tablets sold for 4/6 was 1 1/4 d. [4/6 meant 4 shillings and six pence, or 22.5 pence since 1971, and 1 1/4 old pence, a penny farthing, is 0.52 new pence]. He comments thus.
The trial revealed many interesting facts. The formula was devised after a short consultation with the expert of one of the largest drug manufacturers in the U.S.A. This firm manufactured the tablets and sold them to the proprietary medicine company at about 3/- per 1000, whilst they were retailed to the public at the rate of £7 10s. per 1000. The firm is estimated to have made a profit of about $3,000,000.
These trials in the U.S.A. revealed the fact that in a considerable proportion of cases the ‘private formula’ department of the large and well known drug firm already mentioned had first provided the formula for the nostrum and subsequently had prepared it wholesale.
Nothing much has changed here either. The alternative medicine industry (and it is a very big industry) is fond of denouncing the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, and sadly, occasionally they are right. One of the less honest practices of the pharmaceutical industry (though one never mentioned by quacks) is buying heavily into alternative medicine. Goldacre points out
“there is little difference between the vitamin and pharmaceutical industries. Key players in both include multinationals such as Roche and Aventis; BioCare, the vitamin pill producer that media nutritionist Patrick Holford works for, is part-owned by Elder Pharmaceuticals.”
The manner in which secret remedies can survive repeated exposure is shown by the following summary of the life history of a vendor of a consumption [tuberculosis] cure.
1904, 1906: Convicted of violating the law in South Africa.
1908: Exposed in British Medical Association report and also attacked by Truth.
1910: Sued by a widow. The judge stated: ‘I think this is an intentional and well-considered fraud. It is a scandalous thing that poor people should be imposed upon and led to part with their money, and to hope that those dear to them would be cured by those processes which were nothing but quack remedies and had not the slightest value of any kind.’
1914: A libel action against the British Medical Association was lost.
1915 The cure was introduced into the United States.
1919 The cure was sold in Canada.
1924 Articles by men with medical qualifications appeared in the Swiss medical journal boosting
Secret remedies have a vitality that resembles that of the more noxious weeds and the examples mentioned suggest that nothing can do them any serious harm.
Most of the time, quacks get away with claims every bit as outrageous today. But Clark does give one example of a successful prosecution. It resulted from an exposé in the newspapers -wait for it -in the Daily Mail.
There is, however, one example which proves that a proprietary remedy can be squashed by exposure if this is accompanied by adequate publicity.
The preparation Yadil was introduced as an antiseptic and was at first advertised to the medical profession. The proprietor claimed that the remedy was not secret and that the active principle was ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’. The drug acquired popularity in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the proprietor became more and more ambitious in his therapeutic claims. The special virtue claimed for Yadil was that it would kill any harmful organism that had invaded the body. A more specific claim was that consumption in the first stage was cured with two or three pints whilst advanced cases might require a little more. Other advertisements suggested that it was a cure for most known diseases from cancer downwards.
These claims were supported by an extraordinarily intense advertising campaign. Most papers, and even magazines circulating amongst the wealthier classes, carried full page and even double page advertisements. The Daily Mail refused these advertisements and in 1924 published a three column article by Sir William Pope, professor of Chemistry in the University of Cambridge. He stated that
the name ‘tri-methenal allylic carbide’ was meaningless gibberish and was not the chemical definition of any known substance. He concluded that Yadil consisted of :
‘About one per cent of the chemical compound formaldehyde.
About four per cent of glycerine.
About ninety-five per cent of water and, lastly, a smell.
He calculated that the materials contained in a gallon cost about 1/6, whilst the mixture was sold at £4 10s. per gallon.
This exposure was completely successful and the matter is of historic interest in that it is the only example of the career of a proprietary medicine being arrested by the action of the Press.
Clark goes on to talk of the law of libel.
“On the other hand the quack medicine vendor can pursue his advertising campaigns in the happy assurance that, whatever lies he tells, he need fear nothing from the interference of British law. The law does much to protect the quack medicine vendor because the laws of slander and libel are so severe.”
The law of libel to this day remains a serious risk to freedom of speech of both individuals and the media. Its use by rogues to suppress fair comment is routine. My first encounter was when a couple of herbalists
threatened to sue UCL because I said that the term ‘blood cleanser’ is gobbledygook. The fact that the statement was obviously true didn’t deter them for a moment. The herbalists were bluffing no doubt, but they caused enough nuisance that I was asked to take my pages off UCL’s server. A week later I was invited back but by then I’d set up a much better blog and the publicity resulted in an enormous increase in readership, so the outcome was good for me (but bad for herbalists).
It was also good in the end for Andy Lewis when his immortal page “The gentle art of homoeopathic killing” (about the great malaria scandal) was suppressed. The Society of Homeopaths’ lawyers didn’t go for him personally but for his ISP who gave in shamefully and removed the page. As a result the missing page reappeared in dozens of web sites round the world and shot to the top in a Google search.
Chiropractors are perhaps the group most likely to try to suppress contrary opinions by law not argument. The only lawyers’ letter that has been sent to me personally, alleged defamation in an editorial that I wrote for the New Zealand Medical Journal. That was a little scary, but the journal stuck up for its right to speak and the threat went away after chiropractors were allowed right of reply (but we got the last word).
Simon Singh, one of the best science communicators we have, has not been so lucky. He is going to have to defend in court an action brought by the British Chiropractic Association because of innocent opinions expressed in the Guardian.
Chapter 6 is about “The harm done by patent medicines”. It starts thus.
“The trade in secret remedies obviously represents a ridiculous waste of money but some may argue that, since we are a free country and it pleases people to waste their money in this particular way, there is no call for any legislative interference. The trade in quack medicines cannot, however, be regarded as a harmless one. The Poisons Acts fortunately prevent the sale of a large number of dangerous drugs, but there are numerous other ways in which injury can be produced by these remedies.”
The most serious harm, he thought, resulted from self-medication, and he doesn’t mince his words.
“The most serious objection to quack medicines is however that their advertisements encourage self-medication as a substitute for adequate treatment and they probably do more harm in this than in any other manner.
The nature of the problem can best be illustrated by considering a simple example such as diabetes. In this case no actual cure is known to medicine but, on the other hand, if a patient is treated adequately by insulin combined with appropriate diet, he can be maintained in practically normal health, in spite of his disability, for an indefinite period. The expectation of life of the majority of intelligent diabetics, who make no mistakes in their regime, is not much less than that of normal persons. The regime is both irksome and unpleasant, but anyone who persuades diabetics to abandon it, is committing manslaughter as certainly as if he fired a machine gun into a crowded street.
As regards serious chronic disease the influence of secret remedies may be said to range from murderous to merely harmful.
‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous, since they are likely to cause the death of anyone who is unfortunate enough to believe in their efficacy and thus delay adequate treatment until too late.
The phrase “‘Cures for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous” made Clark himself the victim of suppression of freedom of speech by lawyers. His son, David Clark, wrote of his father in “Alfred Joseph Clark, A Memoir” (C. & J. Clark Ltd 1985 ISBN 0-9510401-0-3)
“Although tolerant of many human foibles, A. J. had always disapproved fiercely of quacks, particularly the charlatans who sold fraudulent medicines. During his visits to London he met Raymond Postgate, then a crusading left wing journalist, who persuaded A.J. to write a pamphlet which was published in an ephemeral series called ‘Fact‘ in March 1938. It was a lively polemical piece. . To A.J.’s surprise and dismay he was sued for libel by a notorious
rogue who peddled a quack cure for for tuberculosis. This man said that A.J.’s remarks (such as “‘Cures’ for consumption, cancer and diabetes may fairly be classed as murderous”) were libellous and would damage his business. A.J. was determined to fight, and he and Trixie decided to put their savings at stake if necessary. The B.M.A. and the Medical Defence Union agreed to support him and they all went to lawyers. He was shocked when they advised him that he would be bound to lose for he had damaged the man’s livelihood! Finally, after much heart searching, he made an apology, saying that he had not meant that particular man’s nostrum”
Talk about déjà vu!
On page 68 there is another very familiar story. It could have been written today.
“The fact that the public is acquiring more knowledge of health matters and is becoming more suspicious of the cruder forms of lies is also helping to weed out the worst types of patent medicine advertisements. For example, in 1751 a bottle of oil was advertised as a cure for scurvy, leprosy and consumption but today such claims would not be effective in promoting the sale of a remedy. The modern advertiser would probably claim that the oil was rich in all the vitamins and the elements essential for life and would confine his claims to a statement that it would alleviate all minor forms of physical or mental ill-health.
The average patent medicine advertised today makes plausible rather than absurd claims and in general the advertisements have changed to conform with a change in the level of the public’s knowledge.
It is somewhat misleading, however, to speak of this as an improvement, since the law has not altered and hence the change only means that the public is being swindled in a somewhat more skilful manner.
The ideal method of obtaining an adequate vitamin supply is to select a diet containing an abundant supply of fresh foods, but unfortunately the populace is accustomed to live very largely on preserved or partially purified food stuffs and such processes usually remove most of the vitamins.”
The first part of the passage above is reminiscent of something that A.J Clark wrote in the BMJ in 1927. Nowadays it is almost unquotable and I was told by a journal editor that it was unacceptable even with asterisks. That seems to me a bit silly. Words had different connotations in 1927.
“The less intelligent revert to the oldest form of belief and seek someone who will make strong magic for them and defeat the evil spirits by some potent charm. This is the feeling to which the quack appeals; he claims to be above the laws of science and to possess some charm for defeating disease of any variety.
The nature of the charm changes with the growth of education. A naked n****r howling to the beat of a tom-tom does not impress a European, and most modern Europeans would be either amused or disgusted by the Black mass that was popular in the seventeenth century. Today some travesty of physical science appears to be the most popular form of incantation.”
A.J. Clark (1927) The historical aspect of quackery, BMJ October 1st 1927
Apart from some of the vocabulary, what better description could one have of the tendency of homeopaths to harp on meaninglessly about quantum theory or the “scienciness” and “referenciness” of
modern books on nutritional therapy?
So has anything changed?
Thus far, the outcome might be thought gloomy. Judging by Clark’s account, remarkably little has changed since 1938, or even since 1914. The libel law in the UK is as bad now as it was then. Recently the United Nations Human Rights Committee said UK laws block matters of public interest and encourage libel tourism (report here, see also here). It is unfit for a free society and it should be changed.
But there are positive sides too. Firstly the advent of scientific bloggers has begun to have some real influence. People are no longer reliant on journalists to interpret (or, often, misinterpret) results for them. They can now get real experts and links to original sources. Just one of these, Ben Goldacre’s badscience.net, and his weekly column in the Guardian has worked wonders in educating the public and improving journalism. Young people can, and do, contribute to the debate because they can blog anonymously if they are frightened that their employer might object.
Perhaps still more important, the law changed this year. Now, at last, it may be possible to prosecute successfully those who make fraudulent health claims. Sad to say, this was not an initiative of the UK government, which remains as devoted as ever to supporting quacks. Remember that, quite shamefully, the only reason given by the Medicines and Health Regulatory Authority (MHRA) gave for allowing false labelling of homeopathic pills was to support the “homeopathic industry”. They suggested (falsely) that the EU required them to take this irresponsible step, which was condemned by just about every scientific organisation. But the new unfair trading regulations did come from the EU. After almost 100 years since the 1914 report, we have at last some decent legislation. Let’s hope it’s enforced.
The back cover of the series of ‘Fact‘ books in which A.J. Clark’s article appeared is reproduced below, simply because of the historical portrait of the 1930s that it gives.
This post got a lot of hits from Ben Goldacre’s miniblog which read
- Prof David Colquhoun gets into a time machine and meets himself
A truly classic DC post.