Oxford quizzed over doctorate to professor

November 25, 1994

Cafas, the academic standards campaign group, is to question Oxford University about a doctorate awarded to a Glasgow professor of paediatric neurology after learning that the book that formed his degree submission was withdrawn from sale in Scotland because of its defamatory content.

John Stephenson, who has an honorary five-year appointment at Glasgow University, was awarded a doctorate of medicine by Oxford University in 1992.

His book Fits and Faints, published by Mac Keith Press in London in 1990, closely follows his DPhil thesis.

The book alleged that the mother in one case study had "terminally suffocated" her baby in hospital. It reported that she had been "charged with his murder" but failed to add that she was acquitted in 1988 in Glasgow High Court on the direction of the judge without the jury having to hear the evidence.

Another woman present in court during the proceedings later read the book and recognised the case.

Fits and Faints was subsequently withdrawn from sale in Scotland in a Pounds 10,000 out-of-court settlement with the mother, which included a written apology.

Now the husband of a different mother, accused earlier this year by Professor Stephenson of attempting to suffocate her baby son, has asked Cafas to investigate the book and doctorate.

The woman who cannot be named for legal reasons was accused via a diagnosis, recently promoted in a letter by Professor Stephenson to The Lancet, which draws on his book for medical support.

Professor Stephenson claims that clandestine suffocation attempts can be diagnosed by studying recordings of the physiological changes of the suspected victim. This proposition was published in The Lancet during the Glasgow Sheriff Court civil trial in which the mother unsuccessfully defended herself.

The baby was taken into care on a "51 per cent balance of probability", according to the father.. The family is now seeking an out-of-time appeal against the Sheriff's Court judgment, and the return of the baby.

Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, said that Fits and Faints should not have been used to support an untested theory since it was "not part of a recognised peer reviewed publication".

A Glasgow University spokeswoman said Professor Stephenson started his honorary appointment from December 1993, and has "no contract" with the university, nor does he receive a salary.

The Yorkhill NHS Trust, his employer, said that the trust is not aware of the controversy over the book, nor would it "have been appropriate" for a draft of the book to have been submitted to the trust for review.

A spokesman said: "The trust has the highest regard for Professor Stephenson's clinical skills and he is acknowledged as an international leader in his field."

Professor Stephenson said that he was aware the book had been withdrawn from sale in Scotland but he believed there was a "misunderstanding" which he was discussing with lawyers.

He said he disagreed that the case was "identifiable" and attention was raised by a third party, not the person allegedly defamed.

An Oxford University spokeswoman said that it took the matter of the withdrawal of the book "very seriously" but its proctors had looked into the matter.

She said: "We do not at the moment have any evidence that might lead us to pursue an investigation."

Cambridge University Press, the book's distributors, said that they refuse orders originating in Scotland.

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