Sergent inquiry ended
Almost three years after the tragic death of Dr. Justine Sergent, the Bloom Inquiry set up by McGill University to examine its internal procedures has come to an end.
Sergent and her husband Yves committed suicide in April 1994. Three months later, Montreal lawyer Casper Bloom was asked by the University to "review the University policies, procedures and practices in regard to the practice of research, promotions and discipline in effect at the time of Dr. Sergent's academic and professional activities at McGill."
Shortly before Bloom's report was finalized, however, lawyers for the Sergent estate requested that the review be suspended, and an interim judgment was granted to temporarily halt the inquiry. Late last month, McGill and the estate's lawyers reached an out of court settlement that officially ends Bloom's investigation.
Principal Bernard Shapiro says the settlement leaves him with mixed feelings. "It would be nice to have some sort of satisfactory sense of closure, but that's not how human beings live with each other sometimes.
"I felt that this was an unreasonable drain on the University's resources--we were spending a great deal of time and money on this matter without any prospect that it would clarify itself in any reasonable period of time. I didn't feel it was in the best interests of the University to continue."
Justine Sergent was an associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery based at the Montreal Neurological Institute. On April 9, 1994, the Montreal Gazette published an article about how Sergent had been reprimanded in 1993 by the University for failing to follow certain of McGill's rules governing research activities. Sergent was quoted as calling the matter "a technical dispute" which was then under arbitration.
The Gazette article was sparked by an anonymous letter that was also sent to the Medical Research Council and to McGill's dean of medicine, among others. The letter apparently attempted to link Sergent's case to that of Dr. Roger Poisson of St. Luc Hospital, who admitted falsifying records in his breast cancer research. In the article, MNI director Richard Murphy and then-Dean of Medicine Richard Cruess said there was no suggestion of scientific fraud in relation to the Sergent reprimand.
On April 12, Montrealers were therefore stunned to learn that Sergent and her husband Yves killed themselves the weekend after the Gazette article appeared. Dr. Sergent's suicide note was published in both the Gazette and La Presse. She pointed to the anonymous letter as one of the reasons behind her decision to end her life.
MNI director Richard Murphy says he regrets that Bloom will never finish the investigation he began.
"I fully understand McGill's position. But I count myself as one of the people who will be disappointed that the Bloom report will never be completed and released. I feel very strongly that McGill and MNI handled her situation properly. I believe the Bloom report would have demonstrated that."
Asked whether the Sergent case has had an impact on recruiting at the MNI, Murphy says "Some in the scientific world have asked questions about Dr. Sergent's time at McGill, but, no, those questions haven't caused MNI any difficulties in its efforts to continue to recruit world-class researchers."
Adds Murphy, "The Sergents' deaths were a tragedy. We lost a colleague for all the wrong reasons." He says there is an element to the Sergent affair that continues to trouble him. "I think the one thing that everyone would agree on is that whoever wrote the anonymous letter acted in a totally indefensible way. We'll probably never know who wrote that letter."
Meanwhile, an independent scientific audit into Sergent's research continues. It stems in part from a request Sergent herself made shortly before her death--to address allegations that her research activities were conducted improperly.
The audit, which follows guidelines laid down by the National Institutes of Health, was begun in August 1994 by former Medical Research Council president Dr. Pierre Bois and by Dr. Marcus Raichle, an internationally respected expert in the research techniques used by Sergent. (Bois has recently stepped down.) Dr. Peter Fox, a friend and colleague of Sergent and an authority in her field, has been shown the audit plan prepared by Bois and Raichle and will be cooperating with the audit. Raichle is refusing all public comment until the audit is completed.