Sir Samuel Roy Meadow (born 1933) is a British paediatrician, who first came to public prominence following a 1977 academic paper describing a phenomenon dubbed Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP). In 1998, he was knighted for services to child health.
His work became controversial, particularly arising from the consequences of a belief he stated in a book, ABC of Child Abuse, that, in a single family, “one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, until proved otherwise“. This became known to some as "Meadow's Law" and was influential in the thinking of UK social workers and child protection agencies, such as the NSPCC).
Meadow's reputation was severely damaged after he appeared as an expert witness for the prosecution in several trials, in at least one of which his testimony played a crucial part in a wrongful conviction for murder. The British General Medical Council (GMC) struck him from the British Medical Register after he was found to have offered “erroneous” and “misleading” evidence in the Sally Clark case. Clark was a lawyer wrongly convicted in 1999 of the murder of her two baby sons, largely on the basis of Meadow's evidence; her conviction was quashed in 2003 after she had spent three years in jail. Sally Clark never recovered from the experience, developed a number of serious psychiatric problems including serious alcohol dependency and died in 2007 from alcohol poisoning.
Clark's father, Frank Lockyer, complained to the GMC, alleging serious professional misconduct on the part of Meadow. The GMC concluded in July 2005 that Meadow was guilty, but he appealed to the High Court, which in February 2006 ruled in his favour. The GMC appealed to the Court of Appeal, but in October 2006, by a majority decision, the court upheld the ruling that Meadow was not guilty of the GMC's charge.
Roy Meadow was born in Wigan, Lancashire, the son of Samuel and Doris Meadow. He studied medicine at Worcester College, Oxford, and later practised as a GP in Banbury. Throughout his early years in medicine, Meadow was a devoted admirer of Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund Freud), whose lectures he would often attend. Speaking in later life, he said: "I was, as a junior, brought up by Anna Freud, who was a great figure in child psychology, and I used to sit at her feet at Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead. She used to teach us that a child needs mothering and not a mother." There is some controversy over these claims. According to the London Evening Standard “The Anna Freud Centre, however, has denied any record of him in their famous ‘war babies nursery’. It reported no record of him completing a formal training there. What's more, their chief executive, Professor Peter Fonagy, claimed the words he attributed to Anna Freud were a ‘total misrepresentation of her philosophy."
Meadow was appointed Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Leeds in 1980, based at St James's University Hospital, having previously been a Senior Lecturer in the same department. He retired with the title Emeritus Professor in 1998.
In 1961, Meadow married Gillian Maclennan, daughter of Sir Ian Maclennan, the British ambassador to Ireland. The couple had two children, Julian and Anna, before divorcing in 1974. Four years later he married his second wife, Marianne Jane Harvey.
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy
In 1977, in The Lancet medical journal, Meadow published the theory which was to make him famous. Sufferers of his postulated Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy or MSbP (a name coined by Meadow himself) harm or fake symptoms of illness in persons under their care (usually their own children) in order to gain the attention and sympathy of medical personnel. This claim was based upon the extraordinary behaviour of two mothers: one had (Meadow claimed) poisoned her toddler with excessive quantities of salt. The other had introduced her own blood into her baby's urine sample. Although it was initially regarded with scepticism, MSbP soon gained a following amongst doctors and social workers.
Meadow went on to testify in many other trials, many of which concerned cases previously diagnosed as cot death or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Meadow was convinced that many apparent cot deaths were in fact the result of physical abuse.
Families that had suffered more than one cot death were to attract particular attention: "There is no evidence that cot deaths runs in families", said Meadow, "but there is plenty of evidence that child abuse does". His rule of thumb was that "unless proven otherwise, one cot death is tragic, two is suspicious and three is murder". Although this dictum is believed not to have originated from Meadow's own lips, it has become almost universally known as Meadow's law.
Cot death trial controversies
This trend was to reach its apogee in 1999 when solicitor Sally Clark was tried for allegedly murdering her two babies. Her elder son Christopher had died at the age of 11 weeks, and her younger son Harry at 8 weeks. Medical opinion was divided on the cause of death, and several leading paediatricians testified that the deaths were probably natural. Experts acting for the prosecution initially diagnosed that the babies had been shaken to death, but three days before the trial began several of them changed their collective opinion to smothering.
By the time he gave evidence at Sally Clark's trial, Roy Meadow claimed to have found 81 cot deaths which were in fact murder, but he had destroyed the data. Amongst the prosecution team was Meadow, whose evidence included a soundbite which was to provoke much argument: he testified that the odds against two cot deaths occurring in the same family was 73,000,000:1, a figure which he obtained by squaring the observed ratio of live-births to cot deaths in affluent non-smoking families (approximately 8,500:1). The jury returned a 10/2 majority verdict of "guilty".
Meadow's 73,000,000:1 statistic was paraded in the popular press and received criticism from professional statisticians over its calculation. The Royal Statistical Society issued a press release stating that the figure had "no statistical basis", and that the case was "one example of a medical expert witness making a serious statistical error." The Society's president later wrote an open letter of complaint to the Lord Chancellor about these concerns.
The statistical criticisms were threefold: firstly, Meadow was accused of applying the so-called prosecutor's fallacy in which the probability of "cause given effect" (i.e. the true likelihood of a suspect's innocence) is confused with that of "effect given cause" (the probability that an innocent person would lose two children in this manner). In reality, these quantities can only be equated when the a priori likelihood of the alternative hypothesis, in this case murder, is close to certainty. Murder (especially double murder) is itself a rare event, whose probability must be weighed against that of the null hypothesis (natural death).
The second criticism concerned the ecological fallacy: Meadow's calculation had assumed that the cot death probability within any single family was the same as the aggregate ratio of cot deaths to births for the entire affluent-non-smoking population. No account had been taken of conditions specific to individual families (such as the hypothesised cot death gene) which might make some more vulnerable than others. Finally, Meadow assumed that SIDS cases within families were statistically independent. The occurrence of one cot death makes it likely that the family in question has such conditions, and the probability of subsequent deaths is therefore greater than the group average. (Estimates are mostly in the region of 1:100.)
Some mathematicians have estimated that taking all these factors into account, the true odds may have been greater than 2:1 in favour of the death not being murder, and hence demonstrating Clark's innocence.
The perils of allowing non-statisticians to present unsound statistical arguments were expressed in a British Medical Journal (BMJ) editorial by Stephen Watkins, Director of Public Health for Stockport, claiming that "defendants deserve the same protection as patients."
Meadow's statistical figure was amongst the five grounds for appeal submitted to the Court of Appeal in the autumn of 2000. The judges claimed that the figure was a "sideshow", which would have had no significant effect on the jury's decision. The overall evidence was judged to be "overwhelming" and Clark's appeal against conviction was dismissed.
Clark's supporters rejected this decision, calling it "intellectually dishonest" even though Meadow had at the time been fully vindicated. He responded to Watkins in a BMJ paper of his own, accusing him of being both irresponsible and misinformed. He reiterated his claim that "both children showed signs of both recent and past abuse" (injuries which the defence claimed were either misidentified in a badly-performed post-mortem, or caused by the mother's attempts at resuscitation) and underlined the judges' controversial ruling that Clark and her husband had given "untrue evidence". He went on to bemoan the time likely to be "wasted" on any further investigation of the case: "In today's world," he wrote, "it is inevitable that....formal letters of complaint from the family to the Police Complaints Authority, the General Medical Council, the royal colleges, or other statutory bodies will be treated with respect and will consume considerable resources."
Meadow's vindication was to be short-lived: after the campaigning lawyer Marilyn Stowe obtained new evidence from Macclesfield Hospital, it emerged that another expert witness had failed to disclose the results of medical tests which had suggested that at least one of the Clark babies had died from the bacterial infection Staphylococcus aureus, and not from smothering as the prosecution had claimed. A second appeal was launched and Sally Clark's conviction was overturned in January 2003. Sally Clark died on 16 March 2007 from alcohol poisoning, having never recovered from the trauma of losing her children and being convicted of their murder.
Although the central reasons for the Clark appeal's success had nothing to do with Meadow, the discredited statistics were revisited in the hearing. In their ruling, the judges stated that "....if this matter had been fully argued before us we would, in all probability, have considered that the statistical evidence provided a quite distinct basis upon which the appeal had to be allowed."
In June 2003, the CPS used Meadow's expert testimony against Trupti Patel, a pharmacist accused of killing three of her babies. After a highly publicised trial lasting several weeks, the jury took less than 90 minutes to return a unanimous verdict of "not guilty". Even then, a spokesperson for the prosecution stated that the crown would still be "very happy" to use Meadow's evidence in future trials. However, the Solicitor General for England and Wales, Harriet Harman (whose sister is Sarah Harman, a lawyer involved in another subsequent high profile case where the parents had been accused of harming their children) effectively barred Meadow from court work; she warned prosecution lawyers that the defence should be informed of court criticisms of Meadow's evidence.
The following December Angela Cannings, a mother convicted on Meadow's evidence was freed on appeal. She had been wrongly convicted of murdering two of her three babies, both of whom had died in their first few weeks of life. Following the quashing of her convictions, Meadow found himself under investigation by the British General Medical Council for alleged professional misconduct.
Cannings' case differed from Clark's in that there was no physical evidence. The prosecution rested upon what was perceived to be "suspicious behaviour" on the part of the mother (telephoning her husband instead of emergency services when one of the deaths occurred) and upon Meadow's opinion that she was an MSbP sufferer. He had told the jury that the boys could not have been genuine cot death victims because they were fit and healthy right up until the time of death (contradicting other experts who claim this is typical of SIDS cases). The prosecution had also rejected any genetic explanation, stating that there was no family history of cot death. Although no enumerated statistics had been presented, Meadow had told the jury that double cot death was extremely unlikely. The jurors took nine hours to return a guilty verdict.
Cannings had already lost one appeal but, in the wake of the Clark and Patel acquittals, the case was "fast tracked" for a second appeal. In the weeks that followed, an investigation by the BBC showed that the prosecution's "no family history" argument had been incorrect: at least two of Cannings' paternal ancestors had lost an abnormally large number of infants to unexplained causes, making a genetic predisposition to cot death highly plausible.
The appeal was heard in December 2003 and the Court of Appeal declared the original conviction unsafe and allowed Cannings' appeal.
In January 2004, the Deputy Chief Justice, Lord Justice Judge, gave the full reasons for allowing Cannings' appeal. His comments were scathing about the entire MSbP/cot death/murder theory, calling it a "travesty of justice". Some people expected that many convictions would quickly be overturned. In the event, however, only a relatively small number of appeals were actually launched, though most of these were successful (including that of Donna Anthony, who served six years for allegedly murdering her son and daughter). In addition to this, the law was changed such that no person can be convicted on the basis of expert testimony alone.
On 21 June 2005 Meadow appeared before a GMC fitness to practise tribunal. On 13 July, the tribunal ruled that his evidence in the Clark case was indeed misleading and incorrect and on 15 July decided he was guilty of "serious professional misconduct". A decision was made that his name should be struck from the medical register, although the Society of Expert Witnesses commented that the severity of this punishment would cause many professionals to reconsider whether to stand as expert witnesses.
The following month, Meadow launched an appeal against this ruling. On 17 February 2006 High Court judge Mr Justice Collins found in his favour, ruling against the decision to strike him from the medical register. The judge stated that although the GMC had been right to criticize him, his actions could not properly be regarded as "serious professional misconduct".
On 26 October 2006 the Appeal Court overturned the High Court's earlier ruling, allowing expert witnesses to be disciplined once again but ruled that the High Court decision that Meadow was not guilty of serious professional misconduct should stand. However, on the issue of serious professional misconduct, the Appeal Court panel was split 2:1 with the dissenting judge, Sir Anthony Clarke, concluding Meadow was "guilty of serious professional misconduct" and provided detailed reasons for his conclusion. One of the other two judges, Lord Justice Auld, said Meadow "was undoubtedly guilty of some professional misconduct" but that it "fell far short of serious professional misconduct" (see Richard Webster's article discussing the judgment.)
In 2004 Meadow’s ex-wife, Gillian Paterson, accused Meadow of seeing “mothers with Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy wherever he looked,” and implied that he was a misogynist: “I don't think he likes women... although I can't go into details, I'm sure he has a serious problem with women.” The article also revealed that Meadow had starred in an amateur production of The Crucible by Arthur Miller, playing Judge Danforth who falsely and recklessly accuses women of witchcraft and child killing and sentences them to death. Meadow confided to a friend that “he found it an uncomfortable part because he identified with this judge more than he was happy with.”
Ian and Angela Gay
In the 2005 trial of Ian and Angela Gay over the death of their adopted son Christian, the prosecution relied heavily upon Meadow's 1993 paper "Non-accidental salt poisoning", citing it many times throughout the trial. The judge also referred to the paper citing it five times during his summing up. Ian and Angela Gay were found guilty of manslaughter and spent 15 months in prison before their convictions were quashed.
In interviews for BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme, Professor Jean Golding and Professor Ashley Grossman both questioned the reliability of the Meadow paper. The naturally occurring condition diabetes insipidus was suggested as a more likely cause of an elevated salt level than deliberate salt poisoning.
- Meadow, Roy (May 1997). ABC of Child Abuse. BMJ books. p. 100. ISBN 0-7279-1106-6.
- Matthew Taylor (2003-12-19). "Cot death expert to face investigation". London: The Daily Mirror. Retrieved 2007-03-18.
- "BBC:Sir Roy Meadow struck off by GMC". BBC News. 15 July 2005.
- Shaikh, Thair. "Sally Clark, mother wrongly convicted of killing her sons, found dead at home", The Guardian, March 17, 2007.
- "Media Summary of Judgment". judiciary.gov.uk. 2006-10-26. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. Retrieved 2007-03-17.
- "Professor created "Meadow's Law"". London: Daily Mail. 2004-01-21. Retrieved 2008-04-01.
- Cohen, David. "He doesn't like women, says ex-wife". The Evening Standard. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
- David Cohen (2004-01-23). "He Doesn't Like Women, Says Ex-Wife". The Evening Standard. Retrieved 2008-05-18.
- BBC profile: Sir Roy Meadow
- University of Leeds, List of Emeritus Professors
- Meadow, Roy "Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy: The Hinterlands of Child Abuse", The Lancet, August 13, pp. 343-5, 1977
- "Beverly Allitt: Suffer the Children". The Crime Library. 10 May 2000. Retrieved 2007-02-06.
- Gene find casts doubt on double 'cot death' murders. The Observer; July 15, 2001
- Cassandra Jardine. Has Sally Clark's case changed attitudes to infant death?, The Telegraph, 16 March 2008.
- "Royal Statistical Society concerned by issues raised in Sally Clark case" (Press release). Royal Statistical Society. 23 October 2001. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
- Green, Peter (23 January 2002). "Letter from the President to the Lord Chancellor regarding the use of statistical evidence in court cases" (PDF). Royal Statistical Society. Retrieved 25 April 2009.
- Watkins, Stephen J "Conviction by Mathematical Error?" , British Medical Journal, Vol. 320, pp. 2-3, 1 January 2000.
- Joyce, Helen (September 2002). "Beyond reasonable doubt". Plus Magazine. Retrieved 2009-09-15.
- Meadow, Roy "A Case of Murder and the BMJ", British Medical Journal, Vol. 324, pp. 41-43, 5 January 2002.]
- Webster, Richard article discussing Appeal Court judgement
- Meadow, Roy "Non-accidental salt poisoning", Archives of Disease in Childhood, Vol. 68, pp. 448-452, 1993.
- BBC Radio 4, "Miscarriages Of Justice", transmission date 29 November 2005.
- Schneps, Leila; Colmez, Coralie (2013). "Math error number 1: multiplying non-independent probabilities. The case of Sally Clark: motherhood under attack". Math on trial. How numbers get used and abused in the courtroom. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0-465-03292-1.
- Judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of Regina vs. Cannings, Jan 2004.
- Meadow faces GMC misconduct hearing from The Guardian.
- 'Disappointed and disheartened' BBC News report on the reactions of the women who were jailed.
- GMC Fitness to Practice Panel finding of serious professional misconduct against Meadow, July 2005.
- Judgement in High Court appeal in case brought by Meadow against GMC finding of serious professional misconduct, Feb 2006.
- Court of Appeal judgement restoring the ability of the GMC to discipline misconduct by expert witnesses, Oct 2006.
- AsherMeadow, a web-based information resource devoted to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
- Information on Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a website devoted to Munchausen syndrome and Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy by expert Dr. Marc Feldman.