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Expert who supported U of M in deadly experiment invited to speak on ethics

U President Eric Kaler (far left) looked perturbed as legislative auditor James Nobles scolded the university over Dan Markingson. The U is now inviting one of the expert witnesses in its discredited case to speak at a conference on ethics.

U President Eric Kaler (far left) looked perturbed as legislative auditor James Nobles scolded the university over Dan Markingson. The U is now inviting one of the expert witnesses in its discredited case to speak at a conference on ethics. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Paul Appelbaum is a distinguished professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. He is former president of the American Psychiatric Association and currently serves as ethics committee chair of the World Psychiatric Association. He treats a broad portfolio of patients.

He would be a natural candidate to speak at the University of Minnesota’s March conference on research ethics -- but for his role in a deadly scandal that rocked the University’s psychiatry department.

Dan Markingson was 26 years old when he was involuntarily committed for apocalyptic hallucinations. His treating physician, U professor Dr. Stephen Olson, at first recommended sending Markingson away to a long-term state hospital. But when Markingson agreed to take part in clinical trials for an experimental anti-psychotic drug, Olson let him off the hook.

Markingson’s mother, Mary Weiss, was strongly opposed to her son being used in experiments when she felt that he needed treatment. She watched his condition worsen over the course of the experiment and repeatedly warned the U that her son might hurt himself. Five months into the study, Markingson violently killed himself with a box cutter.

The university’s internal investigation absolved itself. So Weiss filed a civil lawsuit. One of the expert witnesses the university paid to testify was Appelbaum.

In his 2007 testimony, Appelbaum said the university was blameless, that its researchers complied with federal law and did not violate bioethics standards. He said it was normal for physicians to recruit patients into their own studies.

He cast doubt on whether Markingson was really too vulnerable to consent because federal regulations on the subject used the precise words “mentally disabled,” and he testified that international human research codes adopted as a result of Nazi experimentation had no binding on the University of Minnesota.

Weiss lost her lawsuit. The university billed her for $57,000 to cover Appelbaum’s fees.

It wasn’t until 2014 – a decade after Markingson’s death – that the state legislative auditor looked into the Markingson case again and ripped into the U for its many serious ethical violations. That report temporarily shut down the university’s psychiatric research, and the Markingson case is now warned of in research institutions the world over.

Carl Elliott, a University of Minnesota bioethicist who doggedly investigated the Markingson case throughout the years of university cover-ups, weathering the ire of the administration, says Appelbaum’s invitation to the March conference is “a slap in the face.”

He notes that none of the hundreds of scholars who publicly criticized the university over Markingson were invited to speak at this conference, which is about informed consent.

City Pages reached out to Appelbaum to ask whether he plans to discuss the Markingson case or engage critics in debate over his role. A Columbia University spokeswoman declined comment, saying Appelbaum was traveling.