Suppressing the Medical Press



Lapius was busy underlining passages in the journal that lay open on his desk.  “Something must grab you, Simon.  I haven’t seen that since I was a medical student.”



He chuckled.  “Chalk one up for the British Medical Journal.  A landmark case, and possibly a warning of things to come.”



“Why what’s going on across the briny?”



“An attempt at suppression of the fourth estate, the medical fourth estate no less.  You know the papers of late have been full of the remarks by Whitehead, of the Nixon administration, and Agnew before him which many have interpreted as attacks on the news media.  But my knowledge there has never been an attack on the freedom of the medical press.  Yet, one such occurred in England.”



“You mean someone has threatened the freedom of the British Medical Journal to publish what is sees fit?”



“Precisely, Harry.”



“What do they publish that’s so threatening?  Some scientific articles, a few case reports?  What happened, did they latch on to a new Andromeda strain?  Did they unwittingly expose the militaristic implications of the London Flu?  Is Scotland Yard breathing down their necks?”



“Nothing so flamboyant, my boy, but serious nonetheless.”



“I can see someone trying to liven the old girl up a bit.  A few cartoons from Punch, or perhaps a few columns from the Village Voice, but who would want to suppress it?”



“S.L. Drummond-Jackson, for one, Harry.  It seems that he is a practicing dentist who advocated the use of a new anesthetic procedure for dental surgery.  The subject was examined by scientists who published their results in the British Medical Journal, and who concluded that the anesthesia had side effects which may well have been the cause of a number of deaths.  I guess old Drummond-Jackson felt that this sort of publicity would be detrimental to his practice, so he sued the authors of the article as well as the British Medical Association.  He demanded that the British Medical Journal publicly renounce its position and undertake ‘not to publish any similar statements in the future’.”

“They must have said some nasty things about Drummond-Jackson in print.”



“That’s the strange part of it.  It was a completely objective article evaluating the worth of the anesthetic on the basis of the facts at hand.”



“Then it wouldn’t seem S.L. Drummond-Jackson had much of a case.”



“Of course not, Harry.  But you don’t need a case to go to court.  Taking

someone to court is like a game of chicken, a bullying tactic.  If the defendant backs down and settles out of court it’s been worth the effort.  That’s the basis of many malpractice cases.  The threat is enough to force a favorable settlement.  But the British Medical Journal is made of sterner stuff, and fought the case out in court.  It was a long, drawn out affair, and even with all their resources, S.L. Drummond-Jackson fought them to a standstill.  The case was so costly that at one point one party or the other insured the life of the presiding judge in case his death caused a mistrial.”



“Well, I see the British Medical Journal is still sailing under its old masthead, so they probably made out okay.”



“Barely.  On October 31, 1972, the adversaries decided to discontinue the action, and made the following statements: ‘The Defendants all recognize and acknowledge that the plaintiff is a man of the highest integrity and skill and of outstanding ability as a dentist.’



“Note Harry, they say nothing about him as an anesthetist.  Then the Plaintiff made a statement: ‘The Plaintiff for his part withdraws any allegation against the defendants or any of them of dishonesty or impropriety.  Further, he recognizes and acknowledges that the British Medical Journal has the right and duty to its readers and to the medical profession generally to publish articles such as that submitted to them by the individual defendants, and to comment on them.’



“Clearly a victory for freedom of the medical press and for the British Medical Journal in particular.”



“Yes, Harry, they must have made some strong points to squeeze that statement of Drummond-Jackson, but it seems dangerous precedent.  Hopefully, if any other such cases arise the respective medical journals will show the same gumption as the British Medical Journal.  Otherwise we’ll be reading what the Drummond-Jacksons and the advertisers would have us read, rather that the free selection of scientific articles chosen on their merit.”



“Incidentally, Harry, how are you coming with that paper you are writing?”

“Just fine, Simon.  Incidentally, would you do me a favor?”



“What is it my boy?”



“I intend submitting it to the Archives.  You have some drag with the editor.  Would you write him a letter on my behalf?”



I didn’t realize how strong Lapius was.  He had me by the scruff of the neck and was hustling me to the door.  “I don’t know whether to throttle you or leave you out with the cats,” he growled.