Sparks sometimes fly at reunions, as old romances and rivalries alike are rekindled. But at one upcoming Harvard class reunion, a unique kind of tension may be in the air: an academic dispute about some flawed scientific papers.
Those two analyses were published back in 1967 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The researchers, also from Harvard, handed down a verdict that would echo through the decades: Sugar wasn’t the problem with the American diet, they found; saturated fat was.
The articles garnered immediate attention from scientists and the popular media. They helped spark a half-century of research into, and public demonization of, saturated fats.
But there was something about those papers that almost no one at the time knew: The authors had received $6,500 (nearly $50,000 in today’s dollars) from the Sugar Research Foundation, an industry trade group, which had also reviewed drafts of the papers. That fact didn’t come to light until just last year, when a University of California researcher digging through the archives found the damning evidence.
Now, 50 years later, a doctor named Dr. Andrew Larkin says NEJM should retract the papers and apologize to readers for the lack of disclosure. And he has an inside track for his appeal: As a member of the Harvard Medical School Class of 1972, he’s a classmate of Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of NEJM — and the class is getting ready for its 45th reunion.
“It’s sometimes time for people to speak out, and this is something I can speak out about,” Larkin told STAT. “I’m going through this phase of my life. … It’s a time of reflection, and this thing has sort of fallen into my lap.”
Knowing that Drazen — as well as other classmates, like Donald Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Gregory Curfman, who was once Drazen’s deputy at NEJM — would be a captive audience on an alumni listserv, Larkin started by sending a note to his class in September, asking whether the journal should retract the tainted papers.
Drazen responded that the issue was “very complex” and suggested that he and his classmates could discuss it at their upcoming reunion. (And Drazen’s well-positioned to make that happen, being as he is on the reunion’s planning committee.)
But the response otherwise has been, well, crickets — and Larkin said he’s not surprised. Even in the turbulent 1960s, only 1 in 10 of his classmates considered themselves radicals, he said.
“Nobody’s risen to the bait, no one has addressed the question,” Larkin said. “I have spoken to some, they said it’s interesting, but they’re busy.”
Meanwhile, the reunion is coming up in early June. So what is Larkin hoping will happen? Does he hope to corner Drazen and convince him to take action? “I do not think anything would be gained on a one-to-one discussion,” he said. “I would hope to open this to a class-wide discussion to apply some peer pressure.”
“My greater hope would be that this leads to a public discussion beyond the ivory tower,” Larkin said. “In its refusal to retract it is behaving less like an academic institution and more like a corporate entity, with fiscal interests to defend.”
A NEJM spokesperson tells STAT that the journal “does not plan any action on these articles.”
“Since 1984 we have requested author disclosures. Our current policies specify full disclosure and publication of funding sources and any financial associations,” the spokesperson said. “The articles from 1967 were published with the standards of the time. What we publish now meets our current standards.”
Today’s standards were implicit in 1967, Larkin argued. “The articles should be retracted.”
Meanwhile, he hasn’t decided whether to attend the reunion. If he thinks it will make a difference, he said, he will.