Medical research ethics exemplar Dr. Nancy Olivieri honoured

Dr. Nancy Olivieri

On Friday 25th May, Dr. Nancy Olivieri received an honorary degree from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Dalhousie. This is the most recent of numerous honours and awards that Olivieri has received over the years.

The university recognized Olivieri "...for taking a courageous stand that helped bring issues of medical ethics to the forefront of our collective consciousness, and for her national and international research in blood disorders. In both of these realms, Dr. Olivieri has chosen to look beyond herself in order to advance the greater good."

Video contents (14 minutes total)

From 0:15 – Introduction by Dr. Lloyd Fraser
From 6:15 – Presentation of degree
From 7:20 – Dr. Olivieri's acceptance speech

Dr. Oliveri's acceptance speech

Note: these are speaking notes, not an exact transcript.

Graduates and Families, President and Vice-Chancellor Traves, Chancellor Fountain, Colleagues and Friends:

I am deeply grateful to the Board of Governors, the Senate, and the Faculty of Dalhousie University, for this tremendous honor, and for the equal honor of addressing our graduates of today. As I look around and see everywhere justifiably proud families, it is my hope, for every one of you new graduates, that those from whom you draw your strength and inspiration are here today to celebrate your accomplishments. 

I want to acknowledge my own father who was the source of my own strength education and inspiration until I was, thankfully, well on in life; and also a core of remarkable colleagues  -- citizens, resisters -- from whom I also draw strength and inspiration and who have made the trip to this great university today, from across Canada, for your graduation. 

Within, and along with, that group of concerned citizens, I want also to acknowledge Dr. Sharon Batt who is graduating today, and is honoured with the Distinguished Dissertation Award for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Dalhousie University.

It seems inevitable that, on such an occasion, one reflects upon (and possibly inflicts on others) one’s memories of graduations past.  One memory of my own medical school graduation, a very short 34 years ago this week, is my conviction that I possessed, before me, a whole life of choices.

As new graduates, some of the many choices before you – including financial choices -- may not feel much like choices.  Others may be moral choices -- the choice taken, “when an easy alternative is available, of doing the right thing” -- I don’t know a better definition. 

Arguably I stand here today, at your graduation, because of those at Dalhousie who believe it was the right choice for a doctor to inform parents about her perceived risks of a drug given to their children in a clinical trial.  Informed consent.  Patient safety.  Telling the patient the truth.  Really, not difficult choices.  It’s what all doctors should do, what you’d would want your doctor to do.  And, frankly, in my case it wasn’t difficult, primarily because I did not recognize what lay ahead. 

Yet, in saying that, I also want to observe that it became difficult, and that in making virtually that same choice in similar circumstances, many doctors have lost much of their personal and professional lives. 

If anyone had told me, on that graduation day, a day on which I took the (Hippocratic) Oath “to practice my profession with uprightness and honor”, that ANY difficulty would befall a physician who attempted to communicate research findings honestly, I would have discarded this as fiction.  But my story is not fiction, it is truth, and it is one of many true stories in the emerging subordination, to other ends, of a disinterested pursuit of truth in medical research, such that inadequately-studied drugs continue to blight people’s lives, and continue to profit many corporations.

To remind those who were in diapers when our struggle reached the public interest, at issue was the principle of the freedom to publish scientific findings – that is, academic freedom.  As Dalhousie Professor Dr. Francoise Baylis has noted: “The freedom of academics to share their views, even when unpopular, or potentially threaten[ing] to their institution’s commercial interests, is the hallmark of academia.”

And so, as I give thanks to this academic institution, from which you graduate today, for recognizing the ongoing struggle for the freedom to share unpopular views I would plead that you graduates with ability, motivation, talent, energy and youth, can choose, and I ask you to please choose, to challenge forces acting against drug safety, and food safety, to fight the escalating adverse corporate influences in health care that act against the public interest.  Those forces threaten anyone who will be ill, or may need a doctor to provide unbiased advice about a drug -- which will be every one of us.  That challenge, and that choice, is up to you.

Now, you might be thinking: with a little luck, I won’t be called upon to prescribe a doubtful drug, or to conceal a perceived risk from a patient.  But resistance against the forces of corporate privilege is needed now more than ever in every walk of life.  It is a war against undeserved privilege that is, as Primo Levi described it, “the war without end.”

What will some of your choices to resist look like? 

Well, although some of us may come to that crossroads in life where a profound decision places livelihood, and reputation, in the balance, more often the choice to challenge undeserved privilege is composed of many small acts.  Life is less high drama, and more a pattern of small choices to either resist, or to comply with, undeserved privilege. 

I cannot express the impact of a series of small acts in a life better than the observation from Iris Murdoch, who wrote:  “At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.  We choose by how we have lived our lives up until that point.  Then our lives choose for us.”

It is my great hope, for all the graduates today, that each of you will choose to live your lives in resistance to undeserved privilege -- the better with which to act with courage and grace, in those “crucial moments of choice”.  May your lives be filled with many moments of positive choice.  Congratulations to every one of you; and my deepest thanks to your alma mater, Dalhousie University, for this great honor.