Ethicists demand external, independent investigation of Dan Markingson’s death

In November 2003, psychiatrists at the University of Minnesota used the threat of involuntary commitment to force a mentally ill young man named Dan Markingson into a profitable, industry-funded study of antipsychotic drugs. Dan, who was mentally incapable of giving informed consent to participate in this research, was recruited into the study over the objections of his mother, Mary Weiss.

For months Mary tried desperately to get him out of the clinical trials, warning the psychiatrists in writing that Dan’s condition was deteriorating and that he was in danger of killing himself.

The psychiatrists refused to listen to her.

On May 8, 2004, Dan committed suicide, and Mary Weiss lost her only child. 

For the past nine years, Mary has tried every means possible to have Dan’s death investigated, but the University of Minnesota has denied responsibility.

Documents surfacing during a lawsuit filed over his death raised questions about whether Dr. Stephen Olson, the University of Minnesota psychiatrist running the so-called CAFE study, followed the university’s own ethical guidelines.

They also raised questions about why the Institutional Review Board (IRB), the internal group charged with protecting people participating in university studies, did not intervene to help Dan. This review board never did formally investigate Dan’s death.

A central allegation was whether Olson had too much power over Dan Markingson, and too many conflicts that obscured his clinical judgment. For example, Olson recruited Dan into the study at the same time he served as the young man’s treating physician, and he also advised a Dakota County judge on whether Dan should be committed to a psychiatric hospital.

The CAFE study involved 26 academic institutions and 400 patients diagnosed with schizophrenia. Financed by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, it was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the University of Minnesota, with some of those funds going directly to Olson and other study personnel.

Dr. Harrison Pope from Harvard Medical School described the University of Minnesota’s IRB role as:

“…an essential link in the chain of causation that improperly admitted Mr. Markingson into the CAFE study, improperly held Mr. Markingson within the CAFE study, prohibited effective treatment of Mr. Markingson, and thus became a substantial, proximate cause of Mr. Markingson’s death.”

Dr. Carl Elliott is the author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine, and teaches medical ethics at the University of Minnesota. He’s worked tirelessly to bring attention to the Dan Markingson scandal at his own university. He wrote, for example, in a Mother Jones article called The Deadly Corruption of Clinical Trials:

“The more I examined the medical and court records, the more I became convinced that the problem was worse than the (media) had reported. The danger lies not just in the particular circumstances that led to Dan’s death, but in a system of clinical research that has been thoroughly co-opted by market forces, so that many studies have become little more than covert instruments for promoting drugs.

“The study in which Dan died starkly illustrates the hazards of market-driven research and the inadequacy of our current oversight system to detect them.”

Even worse, when a court ruled that the University of Minnesota, as a state institution, had immunity from a lawsuit, the university filed a legal action against Dan’s grieving mother, demanding $57,000 from Mary Weissto cover part of its legal fees.

Last month, Mary and her friend Mike Howard started a petition to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton asking for an external investigation.

So far almost 2,400 people have signed this petition, including three former editors of The New England Journal of Medicine, a former editor of the British Medical Journal, the editor of The Lancet, over 200 scholars in medical ethics, health law and the health professions – and ordinary citizens (some, like me, just mothers of sons).

Some of the outraged reactions so far include:

  • Dr. Laurence Kirmayer, Chair of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University, calls the scandal “a breach of trust that casts a pall on the university and the psychiatric community.”
  • Dr. Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, writes: “There is clear evidence that something went badly wrong.”
  • Dr. Michael Carome of Public Citizen and a former official in the federal Office of Human Research Protection writes: “It is imperative that an external, independent investigation be conducted into the disturbing circumstances that led to the suicide of Dan Markingson.”
  • Professor Helen Longino, Chair of Philosophy at Stanford University and a former faculty member at the University of Minnesota, asks: “Do you really want the great University of Minnesota to become an academic pariah?”

Will you lend your voice, too?

Please join this movement calling on the Governor to order an investigation into research misconduct at the University of Minnesota.

Here’s how you can help:

1. Sign the petition. (If the link if broken, just use a Google search for Petition Governor Mark Dayton to investigate research misconduct)

2. Forward this page to your family and friends, or post a link to the petition via your Facebook and Twitter accounts (see icons below)

For more information, read Dr. Carl Elliott’s article,Making a Killing”.

UPDATE:    See court deposition transcripts showing how psychiatrist Dr. Charles Schulz, Chair of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry, testified that Dan Markingson’s psychiatrist Stephen Olson somehow managed to bill $1,446.00 for Dan’s office visit on May 8, 2004 –  even though Dan was already deceased on that date.

10 thoughts on “Ethicists demand external, independent investigation of Dan Markingson’s death

  1. Thanks for this, Carolyn. I was unaware of this research scandal until now. By refusing to respond to some pretty heavyweight experts demanding an independent investigation (something their IRB should have already undertaken) UM is digging a deeper hole for itself. Short-sighted and incompetent. I will certainly sign the Mary Weiss petition and urge others to do so as well.

  2. Since UM truly saved my daughter’s life, I near didn’t sign the petition.

    But I have my child. Mrs. Weiss’ child was taken from her, despite her pleas and her fears. A mother knows her child (no matter how old)!

    How terribly unfair the balance of life is.

    My heartfelt best to Mary Weiss.

    • You’re right, Dr. Joe – this case is particularly disturbing – all the more so because of UM’s refusal to do the right thing even in light of growing evidence.

  3. Very disturbing case. Psychiatric patients seem to be among the most vulnerable. Petition signed.

    • You’re so right Ena – psychiatric patients are particularly vulnerable, which is perhaps what makes them ideal targets for unscrupulous researchers. Thanks for signing the petition.

  4. Why can’t the university and/or medical examiner do a thorough death examination? I have been asking that question for nearly six years and face a brick wall of denial in Pennsylvania. Just have to keep on and one day the truth will be known.

    • The disturbing thing about this university is that they seem unwilling/uninterested in seeing justice done in the Markingson case – a CYA decision in hopes that this issue will just go away quietly.

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