Rejected lecturer is suing Toronto

September 28, 2001

The British researcher whose firm job offer was rescinded after he alleged in a lecture there was a link between Prozac and suicide has issued a lawsuit against the University of Toronto and one of its teaching hospitals.

Toronto has responded by distancing itself from the teaching hospital, which it feels should bear the blame for the fall-out.

"Everyone is trying to blame the university for something that happened at one of our hospitals," said president Robert Birgeneau in an interview a week earlier.

On Monday, when the lawsuit was announced, Toronto vice-provost Vivek Goel echoed Dr Birgeneau's sentiments. He said: "The distinction should be made between a clinical setting and the hallowed halls of academe."

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), a hospital affiliated to the university, offered a senior research and clinical position to David Healy, a University of Wales professor.

It reversed the offer because of what, it later admitted, was said by Dr Healy at a Toronto symposium when he spoke about his research into the alleged heightened risk of suicide for those taking selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as Prozac.

Prozac manufacturer Eli Lilly donates to the CAMH. But the hospital insists it was the talk that led it to make the decision. Centre administrators said their earlier apprehension about Dr Healy's suitability was confirmed, and they said people in the audience found some of his assertions "scientifically irresponsible".

The lawsuit, which names both the university and CAMH, is seeking damages of up to C$9.4 million (£4.4 million) for breach of contract, defamation and denial of academic freedom.

The legal proceedings may shed light on whether other factors led Toronto to make such a quick volte-face after it spent two years trying to court the researcher. Critics have asked whether the presence at the talk of Eli Lilly-funded United States psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff might have swayed administrators to drop an open critic of pharmaceutical companies. In psychiatric circles, questions have been asked about whether Dr Nemeroff wields too much power.

Dr Birgeneau said he became aware of the withdrawal of the job offer only once it was a fait accompli and concluded that the appointments process was carried out in an irregular manner. "I would have done things differently," Dr Birgeneau said.

The lawsuit may not be the only impediment to Toronto trying to extricate itself from the affair. Its faculty association says the university and its teaching hospitals share an affiliated agreement that protects researchers from having job offers unfairly revoked. This summer, the association launched a grievance claim against the university.

The university is also attempting to fight off international criticism. Earlier this month, The THES reported that eminent scientists from 13 countries, including Nobel laureates Julius Axelrod and Avid Carlsson, wrote to Dr Birgeneau protesting against the decision and asking that the job offer be reinstated.

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