Warts 'n' all obituariesby Patrick West / July 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Just as the nature of the biography has changed in recent decades, so has that of the obituary. Yet while most people accept the shift from hagiography to pathography in the book world, there remains the notion that the obituary pages are there to hail the achievements of the recently deceased.
So when the British Medical Journal last month printed a highly critical obituary of physiologist David Horrobin, it was not surprising that it caused all sorts of commotion. Horrobin was a controversial figure. He argued that the gene that gives humans schizophrenia also gave them creativity and language. From madness stemmed our genius, so to speak. He also believed that certain fatty-acid compounds might cure not only modern schizophrenia, but depression, criminality, dyslexia and much else besides. He set up a company in Scotland to manufacture them.
For this, the BMJ called him “a rotter… given to avoiding his responsibilities.” The obituary, written by Caroline Richmond, described his research ethics as “dubious,” and concluded that he may prove to be “the greatest snake oil salesman of his age.” Such was the venom of the piece that the BMJ has been inundated with angry letters. Council members of the BMA have also logged complaints, while Horrobin’s family have asked the press complaints commission to condemn the piece. His widow, Sherri, told the Observer: “An obituary of a man is supposed to sum up his achievements, not trash him once he is dead and cannot defend himself.”
Such sentiments are understandable. We still feel uneasy about speaking ill of the dead. It can look cowardly and brutal. Yet the opposite approach can often be worse. To cast an approving blanket over a life can often be plainly dishonest. “We pointed out his good points but it is clear he was a bit of a chancer,” said Richard Smith, editor of the BMJ. “I think it was a good obituary. It marks a policy change for us. We want to get away from the standar…