The Lie Files

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Doctoring the records
Delivering the embryo through the cervix reduced the invasiveness of the surgery. But Pearce's key advantage was this: he never had to do the operation. The name of the alleged patient correlated with a woman who would have been 84 at the time of the operation.

dunnoNormally, that puts a woman out of the child-bearing years. But an additional factor made her pregnancy even more unlikely. She was dead at the time of the "operation."

Medical specialists admitted that operating on a dead patient did reduce the chance of side effects. But some of Pearce's harshest critics added a telling detail to the argument: inventing cures for conditions like ectopic pregnancy does raise false hopes.

The scam began unraveling even before publication, when Pearce's colleagues at St. George's Hospital, London, wondered why they'd heard nothing about the revolutionary procedure. A colleague accused Pearce of impropriety, and the hospital mounted an investigation, which found that Pearce had forged computer records in an effort to cover his tracks.

The investigation revealed that Pearce had not just invented the ectopic success: he also concocted, from whole cloth, a random trial of 191 patients. (You don't need a medical degree to recognize the time savings in not even staging an experiment.)

coupla white guys sittin' around talking coupla white guys sittin' around talking

Good ol' boys
How did Pearce succeed in publishing his breakthrough technique? Observers blamed laxity on the part of the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which accepted Pearce's pioneering report on ectopic pregnancy after considering it for fully three days. "The British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology did not put as many barriers up to the publication of fraud as they might," wrote Stephen Lock (see "Lessons From the Pearce Affair" in the bibliography).

Pearce benefited from an old-boy network. He was an editor of the duped journal. His mentor and supervisor at the hospital, Professor Geoffrey Chamberlain, was the journal's top editor and president of its publisher, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Just on the face of it, the 191-patient trial for miscarriages associated with polycystic ovaries should have raised questions. According to Lock, who co-wrote the book "Fraud and Misconduct in Medical Research" (see bibliography), the condition is extremely rare, and "A more disinterested editor might have questioned the fact that over three years Pearce purported to have collected 191 women with a syndrome so uncommon that a major referral center was seeing only one or two new cases a month."

Remarkable retraction
In November 1995, the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology retracted four Pearce articles, saying that two studies were "unsubstantiated and could not be relied upon." Regarding the other two studies, "No evidence could be found that [they] had been carried out." (The second category included the miscarriage study. See "Retraction of Articles" in the bibliography.

When it was over, Chamberlain had resigned from the obstetrical society and the journal (but not from St. George's Hospital). Pearce was sacked from the hospital and removed from the British medical register (to which he is eligible to reapply) and he is no longer an editor of the journal.

Critics warn that fraud is distressingly common in medicine. In 1996, five articles on leukemia co-authored by none other than Francis Collins, director of the National Center for Human Genome Research, were withdrawn after a graduate student at the University of Michigan was found to have cooked up data. For an examination of fraud in science, see "Betrayers of the Truth " in the bibliography.

Impossible dream of biological computer -- realized!

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