JAMA Duped by Inuit Story

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Science  31 Aug 2001:
Vol. 293, Issue 5535, pp. 1587
DOI: 10.1126/science.293.5535.1587c

The Journal of the American Medical Association(JAMA) has admitted that it unwittingly published a fictional account last year about an Inuit elder who took his life by walking out onto the Arctic ice.

The essay was written by physician Shetel Shah of Durham, North Carolina, who had done a medical school rotation in an Alaska village clinic. In the 18 October 2000 issue of JAMA, Shah recounted how the 97-year-old elder told him that he had once been a great whaler and carver but was now useless. After the man's family paid their final respects, Shah wrote, he took to the ice and “slowly vanished into the early-morning fog.”

Shah's former supervisor, Michael Swenson of the Norton Sound Health Corp. in Nome, Alaska, said in a letter in last week's JAMA that no such elder ever appeared at the clinic, and that the Inuits esteem their old people. JAMA editor Catherine DeAngelis says Shah's “lack of integrity … impugns our reputation.” But Shah, in a response in the same issue, says the essay is based on stories he heard and “falls well within the limits of artistic license.” Former JAMA editor George Lundberg seems inclined to agree. “In my view,” he says, “the tempest is outsized for the teapot.”

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