Intended for healthcare professionals


Storage of human organs prompts three inquiries

BMJ 2000; 320 doi: (Published 08 January 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;320:77
  1. Richard Woodman
  1. London

    The clinical negligence lawyer Michael Redfern QC is to chair the independent inquiry into the mass storage of human organs at the Alder Hey Royal Liverpool Children's Hospital, the government has announced.

    The other panel members are Jean Keeling, consultant in paediatric pathology at the Royal Sick Children's Hospital in Edinburgh, and Liz Powell, chief officer at Liverpool Central and Southern Community Health Council.

    The inquiry will look into the circumstances surrounding the removal and retention of human tissues, determine to what extent the Human Tissue Act 1961 was complied with, and examine professional practice, including what information was given to the children's parents. The findings and recommendations will be published after being sent to the health secretary, Alan Milburn, by the end of March 2000.

    Last month's internal hospital inquiry report by consultant paediatric pathologist Stephen Gould said the extent of organ retention between 1988 and 1995 was “far more than would normally be expected.”

    An estimated 2000 to 2500 pots filled with organs had been stored in a laboratory cellar following postmortem examinations at the hospital. The count included 767 brains, 611 hearts, 773 thoracic organs, and 787 sets of abdominal organs, including sometimes the gonads.

    Although initially regarded as unusual, organ retention became the “accepted norm” because of the department's new status under Dick van Velzen, Britain's first professor of fetal and infant pathology at Liverpool from 1988 to 1995, who has since been reported to the General Medical Council.

    Many clinicians would also have been “very aware of heart retention,” but it was “highly unlikely” that this would have been specifically discussed with parents at the time of consent, the report added.

    Meanwhile, the chief medical officer for England, Liam Donaldson, has given more details of his separate investigation into the scale of organ retention generally, which is expected to report by September.

    In a news release, he said he would specifically comment on the practices undertaken at the Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Liverpool, following confirmation that the centre had retained some brains and spinal cords from patients.

    “When my investigations are concluded I will be using the findings together with the outcome of the Alder Hey inquiry, as well as an interim report from the Bristol inquiry, to draw up comprehensive advice for the secretary of state on this whole subject.

    Embedded Image

    Michael Redfern QC will chair inquiry

    (Credit: UPPA)