Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Secrets of the MMR scare

How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 11 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:c5258
  1. Brian Deer, journalist
  1. 1London, UK

In the second part of a special BMJ series, Brian Deer reveals a secret scheme to raise huge sums from a campaign, launched at a London medical school, that claimed links between MMR, autism, and bowel disease

John Walker-Smith, professor of paediatric gastroenterology, hurried to Malcolm ward on the sixth floor of the Royal Free Hospital, London, with what any doctor would think was bad news. An 8 year old boy, admitted for five days of investigations, had been provisionally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. But when the child’s mother—here anonymised as “Mrs 2”—years afterwards recounted what happened, she seemed pleased to have received information she expected and made it sound as if Walker Smith was glad too.

“He skipped into that room like a 2 year old,” she told me. She remembered he said: “[Mrs 2], you were right.”

Brightly painted with murals, Malcolm ward was Walker-Smith’s. It came with his employment contract. Exactly one year previously, in September 1995, he had been lured to the Royal Free with many perks, of which this was one. Previously the hospital had no children’s bowel service, but with him it had a chance of the best.

The initiative to recruit him, however, had not come from management. It came from an academic researcher in the gastroenterology department: a former trainee surgeon, Andrew Wakefield.1 He wanted Walker-Smith, who would bring access to children’s gastrointestinal tracts, to help him prove a personal theory. This was that Crohn’s disease was caused by persisting measles virus infections2—most notably, he came to suggest, from vaccines.3

“You used to hear Wakefield’s people talking about how they would win the Nobel Prize for this,” remembers Brent Taylor, the Royal Free’s head of community child health, who frequently clashed with the pair. “The atmosphere here was …

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