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Jason Altom (6 October 1971 – 15 August 1998) was a Ph.D. student working in the research group of Nobel laureate Elias James Corey at Harvard University. He killed himself by taking potassium cyanide in 1998, citing in his suicide note "abusive research supervisors" as one reason for taking his life. Altom was studying a complex natural product and felt enormous pressure to finish the molecule before starting his academic career.
Altom's suicide highlighted the pressures on Ph.D. students, problems of isolation in graduate school, and sources of tension between graduate mentors and their students. His case prompted many universities to insist that Ph.D. students have an advisory committee in addition to a supervisor, to whom they might turn for support: James Anderson, who became Harvard Chemistry Department Chairman, stated that "Jason's death prompted an examination of the role the department should play in graduate students' lives". Anderson went on to promise that students will also have "confidential and seamless access" to psychological counselling services, paid for by the department.
However, as of 2004, this access was completely terminated. It is unknown whether any vestiges of the department's nine-step plan toward graduate student health and happiness remain, though it was highly publicized following Altom's suicide. As a general policy, Harvard does not provide regular psychotherapy for its students at any college or department, instead providing 12 sessions of regular outside care, though these costs are usually substantial for most graduate students, totaling about 20 percent of the cost of each session in addition to a 250 dollar copay. As a result, the care provided does not meet the criteria outlined and publicized following Altom's death.
Corey, speaking of the suicide note, states: "[T]hat letter doesn't make sense. At the end, Jason must have been delusional or irrational in the extreme." Corey also is on record as stating that he never questioned Mr. Altom's intellectual contributions. "I did my best to guide Jason as a mountain guide would to guide someone climbing a mountain. I did my best every step of the way," Corey states. "My conscience is clear. Everything Jason did came out of our partnership. We never had the slightest disagreement."
The molecule whose synthesis Altom was attempting to complete, — aspidophytine, one of the two sub-units of haplophytine — was subsequently completed by postdoctoral research associates and published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1999. The article was dedicated to Altom's memory.
Between 1980 and 1998, there were eight graduate student suicides at Harvard, four of these in the Harvard Chemistry Department, three of whom had Professor Corey as an adviser (one had been in the Corey Lab less than two weeks). The 1987 and 1997 Corey Lab suicides "by all indications ... had nothing to do with the students' work in chemistry" These suicides should be evaluated within the context of approximately 20 Harvard student suicides between 1970 and 1990 and at least 15 Harvard undergraduate suicides between 1995 and 2005. These Harvard graduate student suicides were considered by some to be "not an unusual rate for a university" and "not an isolated incident by any stretch" serving to illustrate the "difficulties of high-pressure graduate school life for some, especially at a competitive university" As recently as 2012, The Harvard Crimson concluded that "even the most conservative calculation" yields a current Harvard student suicide rate "nearly twice the national average for college students".
- Hall, Stephen S. "Lethal Chemistry at Harvard" The New York Times November 29, 1998
- "Enantioselective Total Synthesis of Aspidophytine" He, F.; Bo, Y.; Altom, J. D.; Corey, E. J. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1999, 121(28), 6771-6772. (doi:10.1021/ja9915201)
- Goldberg, Carey (1998). "After Suicide, Harvard Alters Policies on Graduate Students". They New York Times, Education. Retrieved 2013-08-27.
- Choi, Daniel (1991). "A Cry for Help: Suicide Happens--Even at Harvard. But for the depressed or suicidal, there's help to be found". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2013-08-26.
- Rayman, Reed (2005). "Attempted Suicide Numbers Show No Marked Change: Four students attempted suicide in "overt" attempts last year". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2013-08-26.
- Hatoff, Quinn (2012). "Donning a Mask: Suicide at Harvard". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 2013-08-26.
- Graduate Student Advising and Treatment, Harvard University.