Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Friday, 1 July 2005 11:47 UK

Campaigning history of the Lancet

Lancet volumes
The Lancet was set up in 1823

The intervention of leading medical journal the Lancet in the Sir Roy Meadow case may come as a surprise to many.

The journal is known world over for publishing papers on the latest medical breakthroughs.

But its editorial defending the paediatrician - currently before the General Medical Council charged with professional misconduct - is just the latest in a long history of campaigns.

Just in the last three months the 182-year-old journal has weighed into debates about the global fight to tackle malaria and the role of the Royal Society.

In April it attacked Roll Back Malaria, an international group of 90 organisation set up to co-ordinate the fight against the disease, for failing to make much progress.


And a month later it was branding the Royal Society, the UK's academy of science, lazy.

The attack prompted society executive secretary Stephen Cox to liken the journal to a "red-top tabloid".

But editorials such as these are all part of the Lancet's long history.

The journal was founded in 1823 by Thomas Wakley as a radical campaigning publication against what he saw as corruption in the medical establishment.

The Lancet has always promoted debate and set the agenda
Dr Richard Smith, ex-British Medical Journal editor

Some of its earliest attacks focussed on bungled operations and medical establishment secrecy.

And after the Crimean War, the journal launched a campaign to improve hospital hygiene, revealing that while Florence Nightingale's "modern" hygienic nursing methods had been adopted by private hospitals, many workhouse hospitals remained filthy and in disrepair.

Current editor Dr Richard Horton is no stranger to controversy either.

In 1998 the journal published a paper suggesting the MMR jab was linked to autism.

Last year Dr Horton, who has worked for the Lancet since 1990 and been editor for 10 years, was forced to admit the journal would never have published the paper if it had known about a "fatal conflict of interest" the authors had.


But ex-British Medical Journal editor Dr Richard Smith said: "The Lancet has always promoted debate and set the agenda.

"One of its greatest editors Robbie Fox, who was editor from 1944 to 1964, was well known for doing that."

He added: "It is especially relevant in the internet age in which we live.

"In many ways it makes more sense to publish data on the internet, where it is freely available to everyone, than a journal.

"And if that is so, it is clear the role of journals is much more about interpreting the information."

Dr Smith, who edited the BMJ for 13 years, said UK medical journals were much more likely to produce campaigning editorials than their US cousins which tended to be much more scholarly.

And he added: "The Meadow case is all about how the law and medicine interact. That is certainly an area of public interest and one worth exploring.

"So why wouldn't a medical journal enter the debate?"

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