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Consultant struck off for fraudulent claims

BMJ 1995; 310 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.310.6994.1554a (Published 17 June 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;310:1554

Malcolm Pearce, a British consultant obstetrician, was last week found guilty by the General Medical Council of serious professional misconduct after fraudulently claiming to have performed a pioneering operation (see also p 1547). The scandal also led to the resignation of his immediate superior, Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain, as president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and as editor of the college's journal.

Mr Pearce was sacked from his post as a senior obstetric consultant at St George's Hospital, London, after a hospital investigation showed that he had tampered with computer records in an attempt to create a fictitious patient. He claimed that “patient X,” a 29 year old African woman, had given birth to a healthy baby girl after he had successfullyrelocated a five week old ectopic embryo via the cervix.

Mr Pearce also claimed to have conducted a three year, double blind, randomised trial in which 191 women prone to miscarriage were treated with human chorionic gonadotrophin and placebos. He wrote a paper based on this research, in which he concluded that human chorionic gonadotrophin improved the outcome of pregnancy in women with recurrent miscarriage and the polycystic ovary syndrome.

The paper was published along with a report of the fictitious ectopic operation in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Professor Chamberlain, then editor of the journal and head of Mr Pearce's department at St George's, accepted coauthorship of the paper, which was published in August 1994.

Suspicions were aroused at first by the large number of women prone to miscarriages whom Mr Pearce claimed to have recruited for his study. He was unable to produce notes, consent forms, patients, or any other corroboration. No other doctors had heard of the research while it was supposedly in progress.

His report on the ectopic transfer operation aroused worldwide attention. Colleagues at St George's told the General Medical Council's disciplinary committee of their surprise that such a feat had been achieved in their hospital without their knowledge. Mrs Alison Peattie, a senior lecturer in gynaecology at the medical school, said: “I was completely stunned and extremely embarrassed; I kept thinking, why should I know nothing about this?”

The investigation at St George's quickly turned up the fact that computer records had been tampered with and that in some cases Mr Pearce's password had been used. It emerged that patient X had in fact miscarried. When confronted with this information Mr Pearce admitted that he had lied but said that he had to protect the identity of the real mother, “patient Y,” who had not been eligible for NHS treatment.

Professor Chamberlain, who had ordered that the records be searched, told the committee that Mr Pearce had also told him that patient Y wasfearful of details of a previous abortion coming out. Meanwhile Mr Pearce had further altered records of real patients to manufacture a suitable patient Y. One woman whose details were changed had in fact been born in 1910 and was dead at the time of her supposed pregnancy.

Mr Pearce did not attend the three day hearing. Sir Robert Kilpatrick, chairman of the disciplinary committee, said: “Mr Pearce not only sought personally to mislead others but to implicate colleagues, including junior doctors, in a web of deceit that has had incalculable consequences for public confidence in the integrity of research. Scientific fraud is dangerous. Medical knowledge worldwide is developed in part on the published results of previous research work.”

Professor Chamberlain and Isaac Manyonda, listed as coauthors of the report on the ectopic pregnancy, and Dr Rosoel Hamid, who lent her name to the paper on the trial of human chorionic gonadotrophin, have received letters from the General Medical Council reminding them of their duty to check research before accepting responsibility for it.

In his summing up Sir Robert said: “All individuals named in a research paper must have made an intellectual contribution and been able to verify the raw data. All researchers should be familiar with the declaration of Helsinki.”

Professor Chamberlain said later that in hindsight he agreed that gift authorship was a bad idea. “I rubber stamped this paper out of politeness and because he asked me to as head of the department.” He argued, however, that even rigorous peer review was not necessarily going to detect outright fraud. “This paper was peer reviewed twice, both medically and statistically. It never occurred to the referees that the whole thing might be a lie.”

Mr Malcolm Pearce

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Speaking of Mr Pearce, Professor Chamberlain said: “Obviously Malcolm has been extremely silly on this occasion, but in the past he has done a lot of good.”—OWEN DYER, freelance journalist, London

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