David Horrobin - Death and Obituary Controversy

Death and Obituary Controversy

In 2001, Horrobin was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma. He died of pneumonia as a complication of this cancer in 2003. Horrobin was survived by his wife, Sherri Clarkson, and two children from a previous marriage. A number of obituaries were published, both in medical journals such as The Lancet and Horrobin's Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, and in the popular press. Most obituaries referred to Horrobin as a highly intelligent, creative and persuasive individual. According to The Telegraph, Horrobin was "a founding father of the biotechnology industry and regarded by some as one of Britain's finest original thinkers in medicine", but the same obituary also noted that Horrobin's implication of fatty acid metabolism in schizophrenia was not accepted by other scientists; that his approach was "unorthodox" and unpopular; and that his major business venture failed. The many problems at Scotia under Horrobin's leadership, which led to the company's eventual collapse, were a theme in several obituaries including two highly critical and controversial accounts written by former Horrobin colleague Caroline Richmond and published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and The Independent.

The BMJ obituary sparked a months-long controversy. The obituary described Horrobin as "effortlessly prolific" and "one of the most persuasive people on earth", but also criticised him as excessively promoting evening primrose oil despite a lack of scientific evidence, noting that some critics questioned his ethics. It suggested that Horrobin "may prove to be the greatest snake oil salesman of his age", stating that his evening primrose oil would "go down in history as the remedy for which there is no disease" and reporting that several of Scotia's product licences were later withdrawn because the drugs were ineffective. The obituary generated the largest e-mail response to an obituary in the history of the BMJ. Respondents, including Horrobin's colleagues, friends and family, were largely critical of the negative tone of the obituary. On behalf of Horrobin's family, Horrobin's son-in-law, Adam Kelliher, filed a complaint with the British Press Complaints Commission, alleging that the BMJ obituary was "inaccurate" and "intrusive at a time of grief" in violation of the Code of Practice. Kelliher was founder and at the time chief executive of Equazen, a company marketing fish and evening primrose oils including a formulation called eye q, said to improve scholastic ability in children. However, in his initial complaint to the BMJ Kelliher stated that he had no competing interests. In reaction, the BMJ published an apology to Horrobin's family expressing regret for any distress caused. The journal corrected what its editor considered several insignificant spelling and factual errors and published three further obituaries of Horrobin. However, the journal also defended its original obituary as fairly presenting "both the positive and negative aspects of its subject's life". Kelliher did not accept the BMJ apology as genuine and maintained that inaccuracies and "unjustified slander" remained, but the Press Complaints Commission declined to take any action against the journal, stating that the BMJ had offered "sufficient remedial action". According to the Commission, the journal was not obliged to omit negative information, including the journal's contention "that Dr Horrobin was 'in some ways a charlatan'".

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