London Authorities Probe Macabre Medical Finding
Researchers Secretly Removed Some 22,000 Brains From Corpses
By SARAH LYALL
Published on 5/13/2003
London— Nothing about Cyril Isaacs' death was easy, from the way he carried it out — hanging himself with the cord from an electric kettle — to the distress that his widow, Elaine, felt over the authorities' insistence on performing an autopsy.
But that was not the end of it. Thirteen years later, in 2000, Elaine Isaacs' inadvertent discovery that her husband's brain had been removed and handed over to researchers touched off a grim and far-reaching investigation into the fate of the brains of the dead.
On Monday, the government announced that as many as 22,000 brains had been removed, most without relatives' permission, from people who died between 1970 and 1999.
The rationale was research: research into sickness, research into the functions of the brain and research into depression and mental illness. So eager were officials to get hold of new brains for their studies that in one case, the report said, a hospital mortician was paid about $16 for each fresh brain he provided.
Removing organs and tissues from corpses without relatives' consent was explicitly outlawed in 1999, after an earlier scandal at the Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool. In that investigation, researchers were found to have removed and kept the organs of 3,500 children who had died at the hospital, returning the bodies to the families without revealing that they were incomplete.
The report on the brain investigation by Dr. Jeremy Metters, the country's Inspector of Anatomy, concluded that there was a possibility that a brain could have been taken from anyone on whom an autopsy was carried out by a hospital or a coroner from 1961 to 1999. Metters made 32 recommendations, calling, among other things, for greater openness in planning and carrying out autopsies so that relatives were apprised of the option of organ donation.
“There are a lot of people who would give their consent for research on the brains of their relatives,” he said. “It would be a tragedy if my report was to undermine lawful post-mortem research that has the full consent of relatives.”
Sir Liam Donaldson, the country's chief medical officer, emphasized that the policy in the National Health Service had been tightened considerably since the incidents described in the report.
“Removing organs or tissues at post-mortem examination without lawful authority is an affront to families who have lost a loved one,” Donaldson told reporters. “I can assure them and other families that since the time of the activities described in this report, the practice of routine retention and use of organs and tissue without consent is no longer acceptable practice” in the National Health Service.
Metters' report chronicles the fights of a number of families to find out what happened to the brains of their deceased relatives.
In the case of David Webb, a depressive who said he was going for a walk and was found the next morning asphyxiated in his car with the exhaust still running, his widow emphasized to officials at the time that as a Jehovah's Witness, Webb would have objected to having his organs used for transplants or research.
Webb died in 1988. Thirteen years later, after reading about the Alder Hey scandal, his widow began making inquiries about his organs. She received a letter from her local hospital, in Cambridge, saying: “With the exception of the brain, all organs were returned to the body prior to the funeral.”
She later learned that the brain, meant to be used for research into depression, was instead being stored in a deep freezer.
But it was the long campaign of Elaine Isaacs, an Orthodox Jew incensed that the treatment of her husband's body had violated the family's religious beliefs, that prompted the government's investigation.
She discovered in April 2000 what had happened as she read through correspondence about his medical care. It turned out that researchers had not even used her husband's brain but instead had incinerated it in 1993.
A large section of the report focused on the behavior of medical officials in Manchester, where the Isaacs family lived, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when a great many brains were taken.
“The practice of the coroner, his officers, pathologists and researchers from Manchester University led to the unlawful and unethical removal of Cyril Isaacs' brain, and the brains of many others, including vulnerable mental health patients,” Elaine Isaacs said in a statement. “Action must be taken to ensure such events cannot happen again, so that our suffering, and that of other families, is not in vain.”
Advocates for the mentally ill said they were horrified at the disclosures. Cliff Prior, the chief executive of Rethink, a mental health charity, said that the report was “a shocking indictment of the way people with severe mental illness and their families have been treated for decades.”
He added: “It is no longer acceptable and never has been for people to be treated with such a total lack of dignity and respect.”
At the same time, Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of Sane, another mental health charity, said that while it was essential to get permission from families before keeping brains for research, the work carried out using brains was vital to finding treatments for mental disorders.
“Our concern is that the emotion surrounding this and previous inquiries has already almost killed post-mortem research into illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression,” she said in a statement.
She added, “We would call for a revival of organized brain banks and systems such as donor cards so that those who suffer now are encouraged to leave their brains to prevent suffering in the future.”