Double jeopardy: UCL and charity's clashes contributed to centre's fall

History of medicine unit's death sentence follows disagreements over future focus, Zoë Corbyn writes

April 29, 2010

An internationally renowned centre for the study of the history of medicine is to close following clashes over its future direction.

It was announced last week that the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London would close within two years.

The centre, which employs 29 staff and has 54 students, operates mainly thanks to an £8.8 million grant from the Wellcome Trust - the UK's largest biomedical charity - covering the period 2005-10. The grant comes to an end in September this year.

It is understood that the Wellcome Trust wanted to widen the centre's focus from the history of medicine to the medical humanities, including topics such as philosophy and ethics, and that this change of focus led to divisions that have contributed to its demise.

Cracks in the relationship between the charity and UCL are believed to have emerged in 2008, when a replacement was sought for the centre's outgoing director, Hal Cook.

It is believed that a candidate favoured by the Wellcome Trust failed to win the approval of UCL's appointments committee. When no alternative was found, Professor Cook was asked by UCL to stay on to prepare a bid for further funding from the trust. However, internal divisions emerged over how to proceed.

A UCL plan to respond to the trust's direction, which would have maintained the centre's focus on the history of medicine but situated it under a wider medical humanities umbrella, had to be abandoned after academic opposition.

Professor Cook stepped down last September, accepting a position overseas.

UCL investigated allegations of financial mismanagement at the centre, after concerns were raised by the trust. Three staff were suspended as a result.

One source, who asked not to be named, said it appeared that the charity felt it had "lost control" of the centre, adding that the case raised wider issues about research patronage.

"The problem was the centre had two bosses (UCL and the trust)," said another insider, who also asked to remain anonymous. "As long as both parties were happy, the centre flourished. But it turns out that having two bosses doubles your risk."

The academic history of medicine unit was under the wing of the trust before it was established as a UCL centre.

The trust said this week that the centre had not put in a bid for new funding, and that both parties had decided to "work towards closure".

It also confirmed that allegations had been made to it regarding financial irregularities at the centre, which it passed on to the university. It added that the centre's appointments, including its director, were a matter for UCL.

"The Wellcome Trust remains firmly supportive of the study of the history of medicine and the medical humanities," it said. "The trust will ensure that there is continued access and facilities available for academics wishing to use the Wellcome Library."

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