Defending a Late Colleague

New book criticizing a well-known professor of neuroscience at MIT who died this year sparks ire and an unusual public response from her colleagues.

August 11, 2016
Suzanne Corkin

Most academics are used to criticism of their work -- and used to defending themselves against it. But what happens when an academic can no longer defend him or herself? In an unusually large show of solidarity, some 200 scientists from around the world this week rejected a new portrayal of a late colleague’s groundbreaking work on memory.

The trouble began last week, with The New York Times Magazine’s publication of an excerpt from a new book about Henry Molaison, one of neuroscience’s most famous patients. Known as “Patient H. M.,” Molaison was unable to form new memories following a 1953 brain surgery to relieve seizures from epilepsy. Consequent experiments on Patient H. M. revolutionized the emerging science of memory.

The book, called Patient H. M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets, was written by Luke Dittrich, a journalist and the grandson of William Scoville, the doctor who performed Molaison’s surgery. Published in full on Tuesday, Patient H. M. is highly sympathetic to Molaison and portrays his fateful procedure not as an isolated event but part of disturbing trend of psychosurgeries on people with neurological disorders and mental illnesses.

The excerpt suggests that Molaison’s medical legacy was exploited by his primary researcher through the end of his life. It accuses Suzanne Corkin, a longtime professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who died of cancer in May, of questionable research practices. Those include trying to suppress information about a lesion discovered on Molaison’s brain after his death -- allegedly to protect the validity of her work. Although the lesion was eventually reported, Dittrich says Corkin argued with another scientist that it would unnecessarily confound her work tracing the memory lapses to the effects of the original surgery.

Dittrich also quotes Corkin as saying in an interview that she’d “shredded” many of her files on Molaison rather than donate them to an archive because “you can’t just take one test on one day and draw conclusions about it. That’s a very dangerous thing to do. … [The] tests are gone. The test data. The data sheets are gone. Because the stuff is published. Most of it is published. Or a lot of it is published.”

The revelation is shocking, both because cornerstones of science transparency are data hygiene and preservation and because Molaison is so well-known. Data about him would likely be prized by future scientists.

Corkin also had some difficulty explaining why one of Molaison’s more immediate family members wasn’t named as his conservator, as opposed to a distant and uninvolved cousin, according to the excerpt. Dittrich overall portrays Corkin as curiously dispassionate toward Molaison, who died in 2008, watching his autopsy without emotion and experimenting -- to the point of his skin “burning” -- with his ability to feel pain.

Personal animosities also appeared to be at play; Dittrich wrote that Corkin repeatedly denied him access to her research and to Molaison, absent an agreement that MIT would have approval rights to any story.

Dittrich’s account took many of Corkin's colleagues off guard and struck them as a implausible. This week, some 200 scientists -- including numerous prominent neuroscientists from around the world -- signed a statement saying they were “disturbed” by the excerpt, “which describes [Corkin’s] research in what we believe are biased and misleading ways.”

A number of “complex issues that occur in research with humans, from differing interpretations of data among collaborators to the proper disposition of confidential data, are presented in a way so as to call into question [Corkin’s] integrity,” the statement says. “These assertions are contrary to everything we have known about her as a scientist, colleague and friend.”

Corkin’s scientific contributions “went far beyond her work with the amnesic patient H. M. (whose well-being she protected for decades), with major contributions to understanding clinical disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” her colleagues wrote. “She was a highly accomplished scientist, an inspiring teacher, a beloved mentor to students and faculty, and a champion of women in science.”

While her recent passing “is a great loss to our field, her passion and commitment continue to inspire all of us,” the letter says. “We only regret that she is not able to respond herself.”

Also this week, MIT’s news service published an article by James DiCarlo, the Peter de Florez Professor of Neuroscience and head of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Science, calling Dittrich’s reporting flawed. He rebutted the excerpt’s three major claims against Corkin, saying two MIT colleagues investigated them and found “significant evidence" contradicting each.

“We believe that no records were destroyed and, to the contrary, that [Corkin] worked in her final days to organize and preserve all records,” DiCarlo wrote. “Even as her health failed (she had advanced cancer and was receiving chemotherapy), she instructed her assistant to continue to organize, label, and maintain all records related to [Molaison]. The records currently remain within our department.”

DiCarlo said he didn’t know why Corkin said what she did and suggested that personal tensions played a role. Regardless, he said, “the critical point is not what was said in an interview, but rather what actions were actually taken by [Corkin]. The actions were to preserve the records.”

Regarding the previously unidentified lesion, DiCarlo noted that its existence had been noted even in the abstract of a widely read 2014 paper on Molaison’s brain. He also quoted a 2014 interview in which Corkin talked about the lesion and its yet-unknown effects on her findings.

DiCarlo also argued that there was nothing abnormal about the process by which Molaison’s conservator had been appointed.

“Journalists are absolutely correct to hold scientists to very high standards,” he wrote. “I -- and over 200 scientists who have signed a letter to the editor in support of [Corkin] -- believe she more than achieved those high standards. However, [Dittrich] has failed to do so.”

The book’s publisher, Penguin Random House, referred questions to Dittrich’s detailed refutation of DiCarlo’s claims on the website Medium. Dittrich said his interpretation of Corkin’s comment about shredding files was based entirely on her own words, and he provided an audio recording. He said that he hoped the data exist, and that if they do, “I would like to know whether MIT intends to index it and make it available to the public or other researchers.”

As for the lesion, Dittrich said the fact that it was eventually disclosed “doesn’t change the facts about the contentiousness that preceded the paper’s publication, or the repeated earlier efforts made by Corkin and her colleagues to excise the mention of the lesion altogether.” Much of the back-and-forth is documented in Patient H. M.

Dittrich says he believes that the claims about conservatorship are among the most important he raises, and asserts that it “would not have been difficult for [Corkin] and MIT to find [Molaison’s] real next of kin.”

“I believe that in journalism, as in science, your central task is to gather data and then do your best to interpret it,” Dittrich said, “regardless of how uncomfortable your interpretation might make others.”

John D. E. Gabrieli, a professor of neuroscience at MIT and one of the professors who investigated Dittrich’s claims, said via email that he and several of Corkin's former colleagues were surprised by the excerpt, which seemed “inconsistent with everything we knew about her.” That sense was shared by everyone who signed the letter, he added, many of whom knew Corkin well.

After carefully reviewing the accusations, Gabrieli added, “we concluded that they were inaccurate and misleading, as we detailed in our response.” Being at MIT allowed them to check the records themselves, for example, he said.

Adele Diamond, Tier 1 Canada Research Chair Professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia and a signatory on the statement, said that she and colleagues stepped in because they knew Corkin personally or had firsthand knowledge of her relationship with and research on Molaison, and "were absolutely incensed by the gross errors, indeed lies, in the [excerpt] and how it painted such an absolutely inaccurate portrayal. ...[Molaison's] life would have been worse had [Corkin] not been in his life. She was a caring and compassionate friend to, and advocate for, him."

Diamond shared an email chain in which she and colleagues discussed perceived flaws with Dittrich's account. One comment said it reflected a fundamental ignorance of science, and that Corkin probably mentioned "shredding" in reference to data irrelevant to any published research, and which she was cleaning out of her office upon retirement (she was a professor emerita at the time of her death). Another reported completing a master's thesis based on Corkin's meticulous data on Patient H.M.

Yet another challenged Dittrich's description of the pain experiment, saying that the heat level was never raised to the point of his skin burning. One more said Corkin was close to Molaison's parents until their deaths, and so would have been aware of their wishes regarding his guardianship.

Gabrieli said it seemed that sharing such concerns “was the right thing to do when [Corkin] could no longer defend herself." It wasn't really about following an "unwritten rule of academe," he added, noting that he's never been in such a position before, but rather "simply speaking out about a person we know and what, to the best of our knowledge, is the truth.”

He said he'd hope "that any community would speak up when a member has been unfairly maligned.”

Gabrieli admitted that he and his colleagues also wanted to correct the record for Corkin’s children. But regardless of personal affections and sympathies, he said, “neither we nor the additional 200 scientists would have spoken up if we thought the article was accurate.”

Jonathan Moreno, David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he’s been following Corkin case loosely, and that it poses some interesting questions about collegiality and human-subject research ethics.

Over all, he said, Corkin’s colleagues’ responses boded well for both her reputation and that of MIT.

“If I didn’t have a partner, some family member or kids to defend my work, if my colleagues thought well enough of me to step in and do that, in some counterfactual universe, I’d be grateful,” Moreno said. “Also, if the criticism wasn’t well founded, and colleagues didn’t do that, it wouldn’t be much of a place [to work]. A healthy institution would be one in which the reputations of the people are cared for.”

Even though any criticism of Corkin would also be an indictment of MIT and the way it conducts research, Moreno said he didn’t think colleagues would blindly defend a colleague, either. It’s hard to hide what goes on in any lab, he said, and proper reporting of data is of value to a department over all.

MIT’s response to Dittrich’s information suppression allegation suggests that no matter what discussions may have taken place prior to publication, the fact that the lesion was eventually included in a major report speaks for itself. Moreno agreed.

“We really can’t know exactly what happened, but the record is what it is,” he said. “There are a zillion different ways to think about a project in science and how to write it up. … The final analysis is what counts and gets reported to others.”

Arthur Caplan, Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University, said there are so few cases of scholars rallying to defend a deceased colleague’s work that it deserves close attention when it happens. When “so many scholars rise to defend the reputation of a deceased colleague,” he said, “that speaks volumes both about her and the problems that exist in the book.”

There is no obligation to rise to the defense of a colleague, Caplan added. “When academics do it, it is either because they truly respect the integrity of their colleague or they know her work well enough to feel angry at false charges, or a combination of both.”


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