manipulations: an interview with Michael Pyshnov
Russian biologist who emigrated to Canada in 1980 tells how a team led by his
thesis supervisor at the University of Toronto literally robbed him of his
research. Despite the supervisor’s admissions of appropriating the authorship
of his research, Michael Pyshnov’s repeated appeals for help to Canadian
academia, judiciary, police and media have fallen on deaf ears
Can you give us a brief summary of your background and the lead-up to emigrating
to Canada in 1980 and enrolling as a PhD student at the University of Toronto?
JUST Response: Why did you specifically choose Toronto and how did your research take off?
Pyshnov: My choice was dictated by the professors’ area of interest there. Dr Ellen Larsen, a biology professor at Toronto, told me that she was absolutely fascinated with the phenomenon of so-called "homeotic mutations" whereby the Drosophila fruit fly develops misplaced organs, for example a leg in place of an antenna. She proposed that I should look into this phenomenon from the point of view of my cell proliferation theory, which I had published a year before. After a few weeks’ reading I came up with answers that explained the basic mechanisms of homeotic mutations. But these answers needed experimental proof, and I predicted that certain features of cell organization in embryonic tissue called "imaginal discs" must be different in the homeotic mutants compared with normal development. Larsen called this "an entirely novel approach to looking at morphogenesis in imaginal discs" and it was accepted as a foundation for my PhD thesis.
JUST Response: What was the working title of your thesis and can you explain as clearly and simply as possible the nature and importance of your research at the outset?
The title of my thesis was: "Analysis of cell packing and its relationship
to morphogenesis in fruit fly imaginal discs". Studies of morphogenesis are
aimed at explaining how the shape of the adult organs is pre-determined in
embryonic tissues. It is widely believed that chemical molecules, spread in
tissues in different concentrations, give directions to cell division and
development. I took a different view. I doubted that the varying concentrations
of molecules could give precise signals to cells at precise times and places. I
believed that as cells divided, they gave their neighbours an impulse for their
division and that there existed a self-perpetuating "division wave".
So the traces of such order of divisions must be found in the resulting cell
packing. That was, indeed, what I found when looking at the surface of cell
layers. I found what I believe to be a universal pattern of cell packing around
peculiar centres which I called "whorls". Such figures on the surface
of cell layers should have been seen long before and one description of these
actually appeared a year after I started, but their origin and meaning were not
given enough thought. I found, as I had predicted, that different figures in all
tissues give rise to different organs. And as I had predicted, the figures in
the tissue of the homeotic mutant developing a leg in place of an antenna
corresponded to the figures seen in the tissue that normally develops a leg.
This means that the pattern of cell packing – and, as I also hold, cell
divisions – has changed.
"Universal pattern" includes humans and lower animals and plants, all
multicellular organisms. In fact, my model of cell division in crypt of
intestinal epithelium (1980) and, of course, the real crypt itself look like a
plant root. The same laws must apply.
JUST Response: Are there any important implications here for human genetics?
Pyshnov: First, this pattern does not exist in progressed malignant tissue where connections between cells are weak and where cells do not form any known body tissue or else do so to a far lesser degree. It is not possible to identify cause and effect here; rather cell divisions in malignant tissue go wild and tissue is not formed properly. It looks like normal cells divide only when connected within tissue; they do not divide when free flowing. So does the correct signal for division comes from cell packing? Precursors of blood cells divide at the place where they are in the tissue, not in blood. Leukemic cells divide also in blood. There are theories that connect cancer with defective cell surface and defective cell contacts. Does it all mean that I am right in saying that cell contact, and not a chemical (which would of course diffuse for a distance), normally controls cell division? Secondly, when connected cells are dividing, there is only a mathematically limited way for them to do so without breaking the tissue. If the shape of tissues and organs is a result of ordered cell divisions, then the species can only appear in a limited number of very similar shapes. In 1969, when I first developed this line of thought, I wrote that there was an "evolutionary search for the pre-determined shapes, leading to the common pattern of organization in different animals". Evolution was not free, but only "looking" for realization of possibilities permitted by the cellular organization. Evolution did not “create” anything. Under the restrictions dictated by intrinsic laws of cell proliferation, the human organism probably represents an almost optimal solution of a mathematical problem. It is much more pre-determined than is usually believed. Incidentally, the editor of the Russian journal "Priroda" (Nature), October 1969, pp. 74-78, saw fit to remove this last sentence.
Response: In 1986, five years after you had enrolled at Toronto, you
claim you were removed from the research laboratory and denied your degree,
after which the credit for your work was appropriated by Larsen and three
other people. Is this correct?
Pyshnov: Yes. After I had left, they began publishing without my knowledge. It is also true that with my full permission Larsen did publish one paper (Larsen-Rapport, E.W. 1986 Imaginal Disc Determination: Molecular and Cellular Correlates, Ann. Rev. Entomol., 31: 145-175.) with my results when I was still there. But she also published some experiments in that paper that she agreed not to publish and, most important, she gave the impression that she was only planning them whereas I had in fact already carried them out.
JUST Response: Looking back, were there any warning signs of trouble ahead during those first five years?
Pyshnov: There were some signs in the last year, but at the time they did not appear to me as warning signs, because Larsen kept saying that my research was excellent and that my thesis would also be excellent. At the time I attributed the "signs" simply to her changing moods. I now see that there was something odd that needed explaining. Even when I had left, for the whole of the following year I believed that she would call me back and cancel the 1986 "academic decision" which terminated my research at Toronto. I knew that she was particularly keen on my work and I assumed that she would simply not have allowed the work to be lost. Well, it appeared that she was keen on it for herself. But, even if I had been told this by someone else, I would never have believed it because everyone knew that it was my work and that I had been carrying it out for five years. In my view, it was absolutely unthinkable that someone should be able to steal it.
Response: Who were the other three people involved?
Pyshnov: Hooley M.G. McLaughlin, at the time a PhD student in another laboratory and a close friend of Larsen’s, was one. He is now a scientist at the Ontario Science Centre. Swarna K. Mathi, a Larsen MSc student whom I helped, was another. Her thesis was a branch of my own work with my full consent. The third was Aaron Zorn who the University of Toronto claims was an undergraduate student in the Department at the time, though I cannot remember seeing him. I do not know if he knew that this was my work or what he was told by Larsen. The University of Toronto gave me no information about him. All three signed papers as co-authors with Larsen that contained stolen experiments and ideas in the case of McLaughlin and Zorn, or just ideas in the case of Mathi.
JUST Response: Can you explain how you were removed and how the theft of your work took place?
Pyshnov: In October 1985 my supervisor Larsen sent me a letter stating that the number of my experiments was not satisfactory and doubting that my thesis could be completed on time. Then, on January 24 1986, the Graduate Committee decided that I should go home. Although I did try to argue on both occasions, I felt quite constrained by the belief that a university had that right to pronounce a judgment on my work in a way they considered proper. In addition, my relationships with the supervisor were good throughout the five years. I limited myself to asking her if the two other members of Graduate Committee could be replaced by more objective people, but she said: "Everyone will say the same". For the whole year after I left, Larsen did not even call me. Then, In August of 1987, she called to say that our paper had been accepted for publication. Which paper, I asked. “The one that I sent when you left. You just need to sign the Copyright Transfer," she replied. When I went to see her, she still said nothing about my thesis. The paper she showed me was the same one that she had written a year before and that I had already declined to send. My name was there first and hers second. It was a strange little paper which gave the main results of my experiments and practically nothing else and even excluded the number of experiments involved. Later, the University of Toronto said that I "reacted poorly" to this proposition. Indeed, I called Larsen a thief. I was left outside, but my work, with Larsen's authorship on it, was somehow needed. No, I could not sign the Copyright Transfer. At that point, I wrote a complaint to the Head of the Department. I also wanted the university to look at the "academic decision". The response to my complaint stated only that the article had been withdrawn. No one wanted to discuss it further.
JUST Response: What did the academic decision say?
Pyshnov: The full text reads as follows: "The committee met on 24 January 1986 and found the work of the student may not be completed by the time his financial support terminates in April 1986. If this occurs he would allow his PhD candidacy to lapse with the expectation of being reinstated when his theoretical models have fully matured." Does this mean that I, myself, "would allow" my candidacy to lapse? No, I said I wanted to continue my research. Did this "academic decision" say that because I would have no money in my pocket (a scholarship of $2000 was due to end in April), my PhD candidacy should lapse? Yes, it did say so, but that is nonsense. The amount of money in my pocket was completely irrelevant; moreover I did not even borrow a penny from the students’ burse. What this "academic decision" was about was fraud – in unclear language and with untenable pretexts for removing me from the university. A year later, Larsen did not ask me if my theoretical models had fully matured. She wanted authorship of my research, period. Later, different explanations of the reason for my removal were given. In 1987, explaining to the editor the withdrawal of the manuscript, Larsen said: "He became unable to do more research" and "his graduate student status was changed to ‘lapsed student’”. But, later, she said: "He was not forced out of the PhD. He was warned that time was closing in and he was not making progress" and "He left the program amicably when his money ran out". Professor Ian Orchard, who investigated the whole affair in 1993, said: "I do not know the circumstances leading to this but it may be worth finding out if he was asked to leave, or whether, as indicated by the committee meeting report of January 24, 1986, his five-year term was up and the expectation was for him to lapse then become reinstated on completion of further work." He lied – the Committee never said or could say that my term was up, because Larsen's first letter and another document from the Department both said that I had at least one more year. So my term was not up. In 1987 I thought that I had at least prevented my former supervisor from stealing my research – the paper was withdrawn, but I was again wrong. I found, in 1993, that when Larsen was asking me to publish one article with her, she had already sent two other articles for publication, thus stealing my work. In the first of these articles (with H. McLaughlin), entitled: "The Morphogenetic Alphabet: Lessons for Simple-Minded Genes" they say: "we concluded that the ‘whorls’ of cells were the result of recent cell division", "we have presented a scenario ... suggesting that cell-division patterns are altered in mutant antenna discs leading to altered cell arrangements", "we marshal evidence", etc. The joy of having me out of the way was great. Afterwards, the article that I refused to sign was slightly changed and published with another co-author, A. Zorn. While the withdrawn manuscript did not mention the number of experiments done, the authors of this article say that they conducted "hundreds" of experiments ... "in the last six years". There were no limits to the dishonesty and cynicism in Larsen's explanations in trying to justify the fraud. The university’s investigations conducted by Orchard and Donald D. Dewees concluded that Larsen "salvaged" my research. The Government (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, NSERC) agreed with the university.
Response: Who were the academic investigators involved and
what separate statements did each of them make?
Pyshnov: First, David Dunham, Professor of Zoology. In August 6 1987 he concluded investigations into the allegations in my letter to the Head of the Department, Betty Roots. I knew nothing about this investigation until 1995. His report to Roots was this: "I discussed the contents of this letter thoroughly with Prof. Larsen. Her explanation of every point raised by Mr. Pyshnov is quite different from his perception. She is consulting ORA with regard to further action on the matter of publication. I am satisfied that she has acted in good faith in each instance alluded to in the above letter." Second, Ian Orchard, at the time (December 1, 1993), Professor of Zoology and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Sciences, and now Vice-Provost of the University of Toronto and also a member of the Police Advisory Board. He investigated my letter and file with Larsen's plagiarized articles that I sent to the then University of Toronto president, Professor R. Prichard. I knew nothing about this investigation until 1995. His report contains this passage: "I believe in all good conscience, and with common sense, Professor Larsen did the only thing open to her. She hired another student, repeated the experiments and performed some others." Third, Donald D. Dewees. At the time (April 25, 1995), a professor in two Departments – Economics and Law – and Vice-Dean of Faculty of Arts and Science. He was the only University of Toronto official who ever talked to me, but he did not allow me to talk to a biologist or to anyone who could understand the articles that were the subject of the investigation. When I so complained, The Vice-Provost, Professor Paul W. Gooch, answered thus: "Dean Dewees did consult on scientific matters where necessary". Donald Dewees had stated that Larsen repeated, replicated my experiments, but found her not guilty. His investigation lasted for two months; he said that it took 12 hours of work.
JUST Response: What about the NSERC investigation?
Pyshnov: The NSERC investigation lasted 18 months. They refused to give me any details of the procedure. They simply asked the University of Toronto to conduct their own investigation, namely the one carried out by Dewees, after which I received this statement: "I am writing regarding the allegations brought by you against Dr. Larsen. This matter has been reviewed by NSERC's Committee on Professional and Scientific Integrity. The Committee agrees with the conclusions of the investigative report that there was no breach of scientific integrity by Dr. Larsen. The Committee considered that Dr. Larsen behaved in a reasonable manner given your refusal to have the 1987 article published. NSERC now considers this matter closed. Yours sincerely, Catherine Armour Research Integrity Officer”. NSERC did not allow me to appear personally, did not answer my next letter and did not give any further explanations. Recently, I contacted them again.
Response: And what did they say?
Pyshnov: So far it looks like they are starting a second round of cover-up.
JUST Response: How would you define the crucial difference between salvaging someone else's research and simply stealing it?
Pyshnov: The law says that a salvaged item must be returned to its legal owner; I am still waiting. On the other hand, Eliot Marshal of Science magazine once told me there was no such thing as “salvaging research". Why did Larsen need to repeat my experiments at all? This is identical to having the salvaged item repainted. Why was my research terminated if it was important for the university? Why did Larsen send two "salvaging" articles before I refused to publish one. Why did the investigators did not analyse these articles? Why were my discoveries and ideas not presented as a "personal communication" by the true author? These are the crucial questions underlying my complaint that have never been answered by the university.
JUST Response: How do you think your complaint would have been handled if this injustice had taken place at a Russian university?
Pyshnov: This is something that can only happen if a criminal or crook is a member of the group that holds absolute power and others are totally subjugated. Russia was never totally subjugated, in particular, Russian academia. It was never without a few scientists willing to speak up.
JUST Response: How typical do you feel your case is and what light do you think it sheds on academics both at the University of Toronto and within a wider context?
Pyshnov: My case is definitely different, as I had the "luck" of being thrown out and robbed by a female Jewish communist, i.e. by someone who belongs to the most politically untouchable, richest and, at the same time, most progressive group of people. I had no better chance of proving even simple scientific points to the academic judges than Giordano Bruno had with his judges. The University of Toronto is specializing in producing terrorizing effects on the population by openly showing the absolute power of Wrong. Generally speaking, university members are not there to make a product ordered by the employer, so, relationships must be different. But "progressive" universities began cynically offering science to be used by the governments and media promising a bright future. (Lenin said that Communism is Soviet power plus electricity for the whole country.) This new role demanded and has in fact produced the reign of dishonesty, secrecy and obscurantism in universities, especially in biology and medicine.
Response: What other forms of recourse have you undertaken in order
to redress the injustice you have suffered?
Response: Why do you think all of these people refused to help you?
There were two real reasons why they all refused: some share the ideology of the
University of Toronto and some are afraid of this gang. This is no small matter.
If I am proven right, this university will have to go down the drain. I should
add that in 1994 I went to court with a claim based on breach of duty Some
documents of the court case are on my web site. And in 1995 I received the
affidavits with documents from the defendants. A number of those documents were
new to me. They contained admissions and facts proving that Larsen and the
university officials had quite consciously perpetrated a fraud and were trying
to conceal it. I therefore asked first the police, then the Justice of the Peace
and finally the Attorney General to lay criminal charges of fraud. They all
refused to do so.
Response: On the other hand, is there anyone who has helped you?
JUST Response: How would you say this injustice has affected your life and what do you intend to do next?
Aside from the fact that I could not find a job after that and that all the
other consequences of this affair went on unfolding in the following years, I
suffer enormously from having practically lost my very name. Larsen was
practically stealing my name and is continuing to do so. I have nothing left. I
intend to write more letters seeking support even though I have now exhausted
all the legal and administrative channels.
See also: The Domenico Pacitti Archive