Patronage under fire

July 17, 1998

A CAMBRIDGE University don imprisoned for knowingly distributing HIV-infected blood in the 1993 French blood and Aids scandal was again at the centre of a controversy this week as it emerged that the university appointed his wife to a readership that was not open to competition.

Cambridge faced severe criticism in 1994 for continuing to pay an ex gratia salary to Jean Pierre Allain, professor of transfusion medicine, while he served a two-year prison sentence. He was research director in the 1980s at the French blood transfusion when hundreds of French haemophiliacs were infected with HIV.

A spokeswoman for Cambridge this week said that Helen Lee had been appointed to the same department as her husband.

"It is true that the post was not advertised. The general board can exercise discretionary powers not to advertise. It would happen occasionally and it does not contravene any regulation," she said. This is only the third recorded case.

The manner of the appointment has attracted criticism. Gill Evans, a campaigner for equality in the promotions system at Cambridge, said: "This is a particularly scandalous example of a general problem of patronage in the university."

In 1990, when Professor Allain joined the department, the Cambridge general board recommended that a readership in medical biotechnology should be set up in March 1991. The board said the post and new research unit would "complement" the blood transfusion work of Professor Allain. Dr Lee took up the post when it was clear that her husband would return to Cambridge after prison.

Robin Carrell, head of the department of haematology, said "the post was created to meet a special need". Dr Lee had attracted major research grants. "The fact that she is the wife of Professor Allain is a matter of coincidence, not a question of favouritism."

A stand against the appointment has been made by assistant director of research at the department of haematology Abraham Karpas, a leading Aids specialist. This week he acknowledged there was a problem, but would not comment.

Colleagues say that there has been a lack of progress in the research work. One of the original members of the research team, Eric Timmers, who has raised internal criticisms about the project, will not have his contract renewed when it expires next month. He would not comment.

Dr Lee came to Cambridge from Abbot Laboratories, Chicago and has a BSc from Elmira College, New York and a PhD from Cornell University, New York.

Dr Lee said: "I left industry so I could put to greater use the expertise and skills I had developed with my team in producing diagnostic tests that would be applicable and within the price range of third world countries. This is something which industry does not do well. I chose Cambridge because of its outstanding research environment."

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