Feature Medical Regulation

David Southall: anatomy of a wrecked career

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e3377 (Published 16 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3377
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. claredyer@aol.com

After 14 years in the rifle sights of the General Medical Council, the paediatrician David Southall has now had the final case against him dropped. Clare Dyer unpicks how he was failed by the regulatory system and what steps have been taken to make sure no other doctor has to go through such an ordeal

David Southall, a professor of paediatrics and child protection specialist with a world reputation, was hauled before the UK medical regulator not once but three times, accused of serious professional misconduct. The cases dragged on for years, bouncing back and forth between the courts and the regulator. Hearings ran out of time, were adjourned, and then resumed months later. In all, Southall spent 14 unrelenting years in the rifle sights of the General Medical Council before the final case against him was dropped.

Serious professional misconduct has been defined as conduct “which would be regarded as deplorable by fellow practitioners.” Yet Southall has had the support of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and of colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, paediatricians who see what happened to one of the leaders of their profession are loath to put themselves in the firing line and the numbers willing to do child protection work have dropped. “There is something grossly wrong with the medical and legal system which allowed this to happen,” wrote Jerold F Lucey, editor of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, of Southall’s case and that of Roy Meadow, another professor of paediatrics struck off by the GMC and later reinstated by the court.1

What went wrong?

Southall’s problems date back to the mid-1980s when, as a specialist in babies’ breathing problems at the Royal Brompton in London, he couldn’t fathom why some babies would stop …

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