17 November, 2006

Professor David Southall, 4: the research.

Following yesterday's post on Professor David Southall, I have been pointed in the direction of Southall's controversial research and I can hardly believe what I have unearthed. I originally thought the research was focused on secret video surveillance of mothers and children. Instead, I find, that at least some of the research of Southall and his fellow researchers was into the effect of high altitudes on babies,with some reference to sudden infant death syndrome (cot death).

The research methodology (how they did it ) involved subjecting healthy babies to oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) and administering carbon monoxide to induce cessation of breathing (apnoea). The results were reported in the British Medical Journal 1998 March 21; 316(7135): 887–894. I have come across similar high altitude research before, in accounts of Nazi experiments in concentration camps.

The BMJ reports that a follow up study found no long term damage had been done to the children involved and that the original researchers, indeed many in the medical profession, do not think the research was unethical. On the former, I wonder. Looking back at the link in yesterday's post to Lawrence Alexander's website, I would say the research has left behind a few mental scars on at least one individual. On the latter, I am not surprised.

Putting my academic hat on, I will say that I am basically an historian with a scepticism about any field of quantitative research. I have had the ethical argument with research scientists on more than one occasion and their line is always the same: complex safeguards are very carefully built in and the work is necessary to save lives. Southall appears to me to be entirely typical of a scientific arrogance which rejects any personal moral or ethical responsibility for any potentially fatal or damaging consequences of medical research. That arrogance over the right to carry out whatever research they, the medical research establishment, deem necessary is so engrained that I fear John Hemming will not get very far in his admirable attempt to reform the ethical controls on research.

NOTE: I Googled "Southall, research" but it was not till I added oxygen that I came up with the sources for the above. Google search results for Southall+research+oxygen.

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