There have been two phrases in New Zealand, which have become synonymous with tragic events. While “an orchestrated litany of lies”, reminds us of the Erebus inquiry, an ”unfortunate experiment,” takes us straight to the sad events which unfolded over 20 years at National Women’s Hospital, in Auckland.
Ron Jones is a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist who was part of the original team to bring the spotlight on the work of Professor Herbert Green. Here he tells his own story in meticulous detail. The book follows a chronological timeline but also inserts the stories of some of those involved and gives a human face to the unsuspecting women in this experiment. He also captures the behaviour and social conventions of the times, which had a part in these events. While today we are appalled at the thought of medical experiments on uninformed patients, it was still the era when the Doctor knows Best and who are we to question.
The account of events, people, places and the advances being made in medicine at the time give a robust substance to the book. Here are the details, which supported the experiment, the people who questioned but were ignored, the women who accepted the treatment offered, or not offered in some cases. Against a worldwide agreement among many experts that CIS was a precursor of cancer, Green decided to make a study of his group without their consent. This meant women were untreated, or over-treated in invasive ways without a choice or knowledge of their involvement.
While the book is a little heavy for a general read, it is essential reading for anyone concerned with the development of ethics committees in New Zealand. It is important for medical students to see the fallout from poor decisions and for administrators to understand how things can go so wrong if there are no careful checks on the behaviour of our experts. This book clearly reminds us of how wrong we can be and the pain such mistakes can cause. I am a much better informed teacher of ethics and a woman who will always ask questions, even of the experts.
Reviewed by Kathy Watson
Doctors in Denial: The forgotten women in the “unfortunate experiment”
by Ronald W. Jones
Published by Otago University Press