Peter Lachmann

Sir Peter Lachmann is professor of immunology at the University of Cambridge, and a former vice president and biological secretary of the Royal Society, as well as a former president of the UK's Academy of Medical Sciences.  

Lachmann chaired the Royal Society expert group which produced the Society's first report on GM crops in 1998. Entitled ‘Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use’, it broadly concluded that the use of GM plants had the potential to offer benefits in agricultural practice, food quality, nutrition and health.  

Peter Lachmann is a member of the Sense About Science working party on peer review, and is also on the Advisory Council of Sense About Science. He is also an advisor to the Genetic Interest Group, to which SmithKline Beecham have also been controversially linked.  

Lachmann has also been  

  • a scientific advisor to SmithKline Beecham;
  • a former non-executive director and current chair of the  Scientific Advisory Board  of Adprotech plc, a biotech company  which Lachmann helped spin out from SmithKline Beecham;
  • a consultant to Geron Biomed, which markets the cloning technology behind Dolly the sheep.

    Lachmann's most notorious intervention in the GM debate occurred in 1999 in the run up to the Lancet's publication of Dr Arpad Pusztai's paper showing adverse effects on rats fed on GM potatoes. The Lancet's editor,  Richard Horton, received a phone call from someone The Guardian newspaper identified as Lachmann. Lachmann was said to have been highly aggressive. He is said to have called Horton ‘immoral’ for publishing something that he knew to be ‘untrue’. Towards the end of the conversation Horton says his caller told him that if he published Pusztai's paper, this would ‘have implications for his personal position’ as editor. News of the threat against Horton, which Lachmann denied, made the front-page of The Guardian in November 1999.

    A few months earlier Lachmann had responded in print to Horton's criticism of the Royal Society's review of Pusztai's then unpublished research. Horton had declared it 'a gesture of breathtaking impertinence to the Rowett Institute scientists who should be judged only on the full and final publication of their work.' In a letter to The Lancet, Lachmann attacked both The Lancet and the British Medical Association (BMA) for ‘aligning’ themselves over GM crops ‘with the tabloid press in opposition to the Royal Society and Nuffield Council on BioEthics’. His letter concluded  with an expression of concern about the potentially serious damage that 'this campaign of vilification does to the science base and the prosperity of the UK'.

    Following publication of Arpad Pusztai and his co-researcher Stanley Ewen's paper in the Lancet, Lachmann wrote another letter to the journal. He called the paper 'unacceptable'. Pusztai and Ewen responded that if the research needed to be repeated, as Lachmann had said, then why hadn't that happened? 'If Lachmann represents the view of the Academy of Medical Sciences on GM-food safety, he should use his influence to make funds available foir the continuation of this work in the UK.'  Prof Ewen, who was based at the University of Aberdeen, says he received a warning after the letter was published. 'Because we attacked him, it was bad for any university. I was told not to be so provocative.' Eventually, Prof Ewen felt he had no option but to retire from his academic post.   

    Lachmann had been among the founding Fellows of the  Academy of Medical Sciences as well as the Academy's inaugural president - a post which he took up immediately on completing his term as biological secretary at the Royal Society.  

    The Academy was established in 1998 to have the 'authority to speak out on the multitude of public policy issues that involve the biomedical disciplines', as well as to provide 'expert advice to Government and policy makers'. 'Regulation of Biotechnology' is one of the key areas in which it has provided advice. 

    Lachmann was also able to use his presidency of the Academy as another platform for attacks on The Lancet. In an article in the Academy's first Fellowship Newsletter, Lachmann wrotethat the medical science were beset by 'controversial issues - including also the problems of genetically modified food discussed at our Edinburgh regional meeting.' The Academy, Lachmann said, needed to defend 'rational science in the face of wild scare stories. The Academy has found itself much embroiled in this now first year and there’s no sign that our involvement is likely to diminish.' The Academy had also set up a working group on how to deal with the media. 'This is a matter of major importance for a new, and as yet little known body, and the experiences that both our sister academy, the Royal Society and we have had in the last year, not least with The Lancet, highlight the difficulties to be overcome.'

    Lachmann also used the Academy as a platform for attacks on the Brit

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