The worst nightmare of an author is that the day your book comes out, the news headlines proclaim that a basic fact, on which your book is based, has just been conclusively disproven. Fortunately this has not happened to me regarding HOOKED, but perhaps the nearest approach relates to my portrayal of the case of Dr. Nancy Olivieri of Toronto (Chapter 6, pp. 98-103).
The fly in the ointment is a newer book, by Dr. Miriam Shuchman, that tells a very different story from the accounts of the case that I relied on. I became aware of Shuchman's book only as HOOKED was going through its final round of revisions. I was able to get a footnote inserted at least to acknowledge the existence of the Shuchman book (note 2, pp. 113-14). But I had insufficient time to read and study the Shuchman volume. If I had had the time, I would probably have altered what I said about the Olivieri case.
The case, as it is generally known, is a compelling story of how the rapacious drug industry nearly ruins the career of an honest scientist who discovers a new, dangerous side effect to a potentially lucrative drug. It was so compelling that John Le Carre adapted it for his novel, The Constant Gardener. And the case appears to be impeccably documented--we have the 500-page, thoroughly referenced volume, The Olivieri Report, from the Canadian Association of University Teachers investigative team.
Shuchman, by contrast, tells quite a different story. How about: "Ambitious, vindictive scientist unfairly trashes the reputation of a good drug for a rare disease"? Dr. Olivieri comes across as a much more flawed and problematic character in the Shuchman account--one who, in all likelihood, brought a lot of her problems down around her own head. More important, according to Shuchman, are the scientific facts about the drug deferiprone (L1), used to prevent iron buildup in patients with the rare, inherited anemia, thalassemia major. Olivieri and her sympathizers, Shuchman says, have managed to persuade most US and Canadian physicians not to use the drug. But it has been widely used in Europe and elsewhere, and to date, its track record has been pretty good--far from the huge risk to patients' lives that Olivieri's research claimed it to be.
Dr. Olivieri's response to this so far has been a letter to CMAJ, the Canadian medical association journal (Olivieri N. A response from Dr. Nancy Olivieri [letter]. CMAJ 174(5):661-62, 2006). The letter is not terribly helpful; it is mostly an ad hominem attack against Shuchman, claiming that since her husband was associated with some of Olivieri's enemies, that proves that her account is flawed.
At this stage I am pessimistic that we will ever know the truth about this case. The people in a position to tell investigators what really happened and when, have divided themselves into pro- and anti-Olivieri camps; and depending on which side any new investigator appears to be on, one group will talk with her and the other will refuse to be interviewed. My tentative conclusion is that while the CAUT report is very well documented and persuasive on its face, any account of the Olivieri case based on that report will have to have an asterisk next to it, like the home run record of a baseball slugger accused of taking steroids.
Shuchman M. The drug trial: Nancy Olivieri and the science scandal that rocked the Hospital for Sick Children. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2005.
Thompson J, Baird P, Downie J. The Oliviert report: the complete text of the report of the independent inquiry commissioned by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Toronto: John Lorimer and Company, 2001.