The Controversy which is John Corbett McDonald 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



On January 7, 2013, in the hallowed halls of McGill University, a showdown will take place between American and Canadian academics with divergent views on the reputation, ethics and research of Emeritus Professor John Corbett McDonald. Dr. Bruce Case, an Associate Professor at McGill and a colleague of McDonald's, will hold an epidemiology seminar (4:00-5:00 p.m.) entitled: Misrepresentation of Historical Fibre Research: Retrospective Knowledge Translation of Epidemiological Inquiry in Purvis Hall. Fifteen minutes afterwards, a counter-conference will start at McGill's Faculty Club which will be addressed by long-time McDonald critic Dr. David Egilman and Dr. Fernand Turcotte, Emeritus Professor from Laval University. The stated objective of this session is to present “critical information regarding McGill's asbestos research and 'investigation malfeasance'” (see: Scientists to Hold Counter-Conference to McGill's One Sided Conference).

For decades Professor McDonald of Quebec's McGill University researched the epidemiological fallout from Canada's asbestos industry. Often, he did so at the behest of and with funding from asbestos stakeholders. For decades his eminent academic position and research findings were exploited by government and commercial interests to defend the continuing use of chrysotile asbestos. During the case brought at the World Trade Organization by Canada against the French ban on asbestos, Professor McDonald testified on behalf of Canada at proceedings held in Switzerland. In Brazil, now the world's third largest asbestos producer, McDonald spoke in defence of asbestos at a high-profile hearing in the capital. McDonald's research, his relationship with asbestos industry funders and his Chairmanship of McGill's Epidemiology Department have been criticized.

Following the 2012 broadcast of Canadian documentaries which revealed that McDonald and other researchers at McGill University's School of Occupational Health had received nearly $1 million from asbestos industry sources, calls were made for McGill “to carry out a thorough, independent and transparent investigation of the allegation that the Quebec asbestos industry had improper influence over the epidemiological research carried out by Prof. J. C. McDonald and his unit at McGill…”1 An inconclusive internal review was conducted by McGill into the charges of alleged misconduct.2 Disregarding calls for an external review, McGill subsequently put the matter into the hands of McGill's Research Integrity Officer Abraham Fuks; in September 2012, Fuks' report cleared McDonald of the misconduct allegations.3 There was, Fuks wrote, “no basis to presume that the analyses that JCM and his colleagues performed are flawed... I find no warrant to initiate further investigations of the allegations that we have received.”4

The Fuks report was slated by independent experts, public health advocates and ban asbestos campaigners.5 Dr. David Egilman, who had filed the complaint over McDonald's actions with McGill, called the university's behaviour a “shameful cover-up.” It is highly doubtful that this week's events will resolve the McDonald controversy. McDonald's friends and associates are committed to defending his reputation; his detractors are determined to expose his alleged wrongdoings. With the demise of the Canadian asbestos industry, stakeholders in government offices and corporate boardrooms might have hoped this debate would have faded away. The events this week are evidence that this will not happen any time soon.

January 2, 2013


1 McGill University: scientists call for an independent investigation of research funded by asbestos industry. February 18, 2012.

2 Gass H. Asbestos review lacks “required records.” April 4, 2012.

3 Corbeil LB. McGill stands by asbestos research. October 18, 2012.

4 Fuks A. Consultation Report to Dean David Eidelman. September 23, 2012.

5 Beaudin M. Activist blasts McGill's absolution of asbestos researcher. October 23, 2012.



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