Mutagens and managers

Published in Brian Martin, C. M. Ann Baker, Clyde Manwell and Cedric Pugh (editors), Intellectual Suppression: Australian Case Histories, Analysis and Responses (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1986), pp. 123-129.

Note: This article was originally written in 1980 to publicise the IMVS-Coulter case, and was revised in 1981. Earlier published versions (mostly based on the first half of this article, without references) were "Mutagens and managers," Bogong (Journal of the Canberra and South East Region Environment Centre), Vol. 1, No. 5, September-October 1980, pp. 10-11; "The Coulter case: sacked for telling the truth to workers," The Metal Worker, Vol. 2, No. 2, p. 8 (March 1981); "The Coulter case," Probe, No. 3, p. 5 (October 1981). A letter published in Search, volume 13, numbers 3-4, April/May 1982, pp. 59-60, was based mainly on material in the second half of this article.

Brian Martin

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Dr John Coulter has been a leading environmentalist in South Australia since the 1950s. His research, advice and public statements have helped workers and citizens challenge health hazards on the job and in the community on numerous occasions. Not surprisingly, this activity has been most unwelcome in the top levels of chemical corporations and their allies in government and the scientific community.

On 30 June 1980 John Coulter was sacked from his job at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science (IMVS) in Adelaide, and the environmental mutagens testing unit which he headed was closed down. There are many cases of suppression of scientists who speak out or do research on issues affecting the public interest, thereby posing a threat to corporate and bureaucratic vested interests.[1] The Coulter case is the most serious of such cases in Australia to be publicised in recent years.


After receiving his M.B., B.S. degrees and practising general medicine for a few years, John Coulter joined the IMVS in 1959 at the age of 28. His position was a surgical research officer. His early work included research into staphylococcal hospital cross infection, purification, properties and mode of action of staphylococcal alpha toxin, gas chromatographic separation of amino acids and the levels and medical effects of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides and cadmium. In about 1967 he was promoted to the position of specialist pathologist.

During his time at the IMVS Dr Coulter was outspoken on numerous environmental and health issues, including water fluoridation, uranium mining, the proposed petrochemical plant at Redcliff in South Australia, the consequences of nuclear weapons tests at Maralinga, South Australia, in the 1950s, and the health hazards of drugs and industrial chemicals. Because he has been willing to write articles and speak at public meetings and rallies on such topics, Dr Coulter has often been called upon by environmental organisations, trade unions and other organisations. In all this activity he has been careful to emphasise that he speaks in his private capacity only.

Often Dr Coulter has been willing to speak out when others with the same knowledge have kept quiet. At one stage in the proposal for a petrochemical plant at Redcliff, it was planned to produce and export ethylene dichloride, a toxic intermediate product, rather than the usual final product polyvinyl chloride. The ethylene dichloride was to have been taken out of Spencer Gulf in 30,000 tonne tankers. Dr Coulter publicly pointed out that ethylene dichloride is highly toxic and a potential cause of cancer. Health Commission staff were aware of this hazard, but no one said anything publicly. No doubt they felt vulnerable due to their position in a government department. It is now accepted by the US National Cancer Institute that ethylene dichloride does cause cancer.

Epichlorhydrin is a bonding agent, one of numerous chemicals used in the pulp and paper industry. About two years ago, Dr Coulter provided information to workers in the Amalgamated Metal Workers' and Shipwrights' Union at Mount Gambier, South Australia, about the health hazards of epichlorhydrin. The workers knew what chemicals were being used in the manufacturing process, but could not obtain information about their hazards through normal channels.

In speaking out about risks to environment and health it is easy to offend corporate and government interests which have a financial or bureaucratic stake in products, practices or policies linked with the risks. Research institutes such as the IMVS depend on government money provided through government bodies and individuals sensitive to corporate interests, and to some extent on direct grants from corporations. As a result, those who speak out about risks to environment and health may experience pressures to keep quiet. This has happened to Dr Coulter on a number of occasions.[2]

In 1978 the Bayer company brought an action against the Australian Broadcasting Commission, partly over remarks Dr Coulter had made on a television program regarding one of its products containing the mutagenic pesticide dichlorvos. The action was subsequently dropped about two years later but in the interim pressure was brought to bear on Dr Coulter through the Agricultural Chemical Trade Association and the Director of the IMVS. Dichlorvos is currently under urgent review by the National Cancer Institute in the US, as some animal tests have suggested that dichlorvos may be carcinogenic.

In 1979 Velsicol Australia complained to the Director of the IMVS about a lecture Dr Coulter had given, in a private capacity, to a Melbourne seminar on pesticides. Dr Coulter had mentioned the way the parent company in the US had handled information on the carcinogenicity of two of their products, chlordane and heptachlor.[3]

Perhaps more threatening to the management of the IMVS was Dr Coulter's mutagenicity testing. In the late 1970s Dr Coulter, on his own initiative, set up in the IMVS a unit for testing the mutagenicity (capacity to cause mutations) of substances, using the Ames test. This test uses bacteria to look for mutagenic potential, and is considered one of the best available ways to obtain a cheap, quick and fairly reliable (80 to 90 per cent accuracy) assessment of the cancer-initiating potential of substances. This environmental mutagens testing unit (EMTU) provided a service for the testing of chemicals, and was found useful by many groups.[4] A more reliable assessment of carcinogenic properties would require experiments with large numbers of animals over a period of years; no testing of this sort takes place in Australia.

Some of the samples submitted for testing came from groups outside the scientific and medical communities, in particular from workers' health organisations. Dr Coulter on occasion provided results directly to the groups or workers involved as well as to the IMVS. Such action escapes the control over the dissemination of scientific information typically exercised by the management in government scientific organisations.

A few years ago, workers who were coating steel pipes with pitch for the South Australia Engineering and Water Supply Department were concerned about possible health risks from fumes. Dr Coulter investigated for the workers and found that levels of polycyclic hydrocarbons in the atmosphere were very high. Each 100 kilograms of pitch used in the coating process released 1.2 kilograms of benzpyrene. In terms of total mutagenic activity, this was equivalent to four million cigarettes, released in a fairly closed area.

After the workers protested, the job was contracted out to private industry. The South Australia Health Commission then inspected the work conditions. Unlike Dr Coulter, the Commission provided figures on benzpyrene levels to the employer but not to the workers.

On 16 April 1980 Dr Coulter submitted a report to the Fire and Safety Committee of the IMVS on the mutagenic and potentially cancer-causing properties of ethylene oxide, which was being used in an IMVS laboratory as a sterilising agent.[5] At the same time that he released the report to the IMVS Committee, Dr Coulter provided copies to the workers at the laboratory using the chemical. The Director of the IMVS rebuked Dr Coulter for releasing the report to the workers.[6] But the significance of the findings was not disputed: the use of ethylene oxide was immediately discontinued, and $40,000 is being spent on the construction of an alternative sterilising apparatus.

As a result of stories circulating in the IMVS about the ethylene oxide report, Dr Coulter posted the report and related correspondence on noticeboards of the IMVS.[7] The Director of the IMVS then instructed Dr Coulter not to make available to any staff member of the IMVS any material dealing with the affairs of the IMVS without his, the Director's, express approval.[8]

Earlier, in March 1980, Dr Coulter was informed that on 30 June the EMTU would be closed and that he would be transferred and demoted with a drop of $10,000 in annual salary.[9] But instead of being transferred and demoted, on 30 June Dr Coulter was sacked outright, having been informed of this a few days earlier.

The Arguments

The Director of the IMVS, Dr J. A. Bonnin, has said that the decision to dismiss Dr Coulter was based not on his environmental activities but on financial and professional considerations.[10] Such claims are usual in suppression cases, and do not rule out the role of deeper underlying reasons. In any case it is instructive to evaluate the stated reasons for the dismissal and the closure of the EMTU.[11]

1. Dr Bonnin has said that the IMVS cannot afford the $85,000 per year needed to support Dr Coulter, his ancillary staff and laboratory.[12] In reply, Dr Gouldhurst[13] noted that "On March 26, 1980 the IMVS had a credit balance $882,000 above its budget expectations for this point in the year, despite Dr Coulter's laboratory having been funded in the present year". Dr Bonnin has not responded to this point. Nor has any note been made by the IMVS Council of the public value of Dr Coulter's work. The ethylene oxide case yields a minimum figure of $10,000 per worker to remove a mutagenic risk to young fertile workers. A similar costing of some of the EMTU's findings might well yield a net positive value for its efforts in South Australia alone, apart from the wider scientific benefits.

2. Dr Bonnin has said that "Many drugs and chemicals are now tested by, or for, their manufacturers and there is little need for this work in Adelaide which manufactures almost none of these substances".[14] However, it is well known that results of such testing by or for manufacturers are often unavailable, poorly publicised, inadequate or misleading.[15] Whether or not the chemicals are manufactured in Adelaide appears irrelevant if workers and consumers are being exposed in Adelaide.

Work at the EMTU showed the mutagenic properties of the drug tinidazole.[16] Unknown to Dr Coulter at the time, two earlier researchers[17] had obtained the same results using samples provided by the pharmaceutical producers Pfizer. Whether or not the earlier work had existed, a case for the EMTU can be made. Showing the mutagenicity of tinidazole was itself important. But if it is objected that this had already been done,[18] the question remains as to why this work was not mentioned by the pharmaceutical company in its promotional literature when tinidazole was launched on the Australian market.[19] This case illustrates the necessity for independent testing facilities.

3. Dr Bonnin has said that mutagen testing would better be done elsewhere, such as in the chemistry division of the Department of Services and Supply.[20] While this may be true, it does not justify the termination of an existing unit before any alternative is available.

Similarly, the South Australia Minister for Health, Mrs Jennifer Adamson, has said that the SA government regards testing of potentially carcinogenic materials "as a matter of utmost importance", that a national testing laboratory should be set up and that "there is no useful purpose in individual States duplicating aspects of the work which will be carried out effectively and on a comprehensive basis by a national laboratory".[21] There are two flaws in this rationale for the shutdown of the IMVS unit. First, there is no guarantee that a national testing laboratory will be free from political and economic pressures and that it will be responsive to the public interest. Part of the effectiveness of any testing process is its independence, and a set of separate laboratories may be more effective in achieving this than a single large facility.

Second, the Minister's statement talks about a national laboratory which will carry out effective work. The establishment of such a laboratory could easily take several years. The promise of future efficacy, even if kept, is no excuse for terminating a current program.

4. Dr Bonnin has said that Dr Coulter had not been successful in attracting research grants from appropriate bodies such as the Anti-Cancer Foundation or the National Health and Medical Research Council.[22] Apart from the scarcity of grant funds even for well-qualified applicants,[23] the role of the IMVS management must be questioned here. Since it is obvious from statements by Dr Bonnin published in the Adelaide Advertiser[24] that there is much personal discord between Dr Bonnin and Dr Coulter, it is doubtful that Dr Coulter would have received the wholehearted support of the IMVS Council necessary for the success of most grant applications.[25] Also to be taken into account is the possibility of political or personal bias in the allocation of research grants.[26]

5. In justifying the decision to demote Dr Coulter, Dr Bonnin has said that Dr Coulter was prematurely promoted to the position of specialist pathologist, since the position now requires that the recipient hold a higher degree or qualification.[27] However, this requirement postdates Dr Coulter's promotion by ten years or so and does not apply.[28] In any case, the decision to sack rather than demote Dr Coulter invalidates this argument.

6. Dr Bonnin has written that Dr Coulter has had "markedly low productivity as a full-time research worker", and noted that Dr Coulter "has published only three papers in recognised journals in more than two years".[29] Dr Bonnin has not provided sufficient evidence to justify this point.[30] First, Dr Bonnin has not provided any evidence concerning publication rates of other IMVS staff. Mean publication rates for scientists are of the order of one or two papers per year, with the median considerably lower. Second, the IMVS has no official policy or requirements for publication by research staff. Nor is demotion or dismissal specified as a penalty for failing to publish. Nor have other IMVS staff with poorer publication records than Dr Coulter been sacked. Third, no mention has been made of the practice by which senior staff in many scientific organisations have their names attached to papers to which they have contributed little or nothing, so distorting even further the formal data on publications which supposedly reflect research productivity.

A related point is raised by Dr Bonnin's statement that "I really respect both Dr Coulter and his views but the point is that if he is going to do that at the expense of his official duties I have got to be responsible for this".[31] This implies that spending one's time doing esoteric research of interest to only a handful of specialists is acceptable, while evaluating environmental hazards to the community at best counts for nothing professionally. For the manager of a research organisation to take this view is to take a narrow official charter for his organisation. Dr Coulter's view is the contrary one - that scientific knowledge should be used for the benefit of the community, and that public knowledge and awareness is the best way to ensure that this occurs.

7. Dr Bonnin has said "It is not the role of this institute to establish a large routine testing service for the testing of chemical substances for cancer-producing properties".[32] In a sense this is the key point. Who makes the decisions about the direction of scientific research, and who benefits from the particular decisions made? The Council of the IMVS obviously believes that it should be making these decisions. Dr Coulter and his supporters believe that the IMVS actions are serving the interests of chemical and drug companies at the expense of the public interest: "As a public institution the responsibility of the IMVS is to defend the public - not to defend the private interest of drug and chemical companies ... This is the fundamental difference between us".[33]

Since the closure of the EMTU, there are only two mutagen testing facilities in Australia. Only one is truly independent - the one run by Dr Don MacPhee of the Microbiology Department at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Dr MacPhee, like Dr Coulter, has done testing for unions. The other laboratory, headed by Dr Robert Baker in Sydney, is under the control of the Commonwealth Department of Health, and therefore is subject to the same sorts of pressures as the IMVS.


Many individuals and groups have expressed their concern about the sacking of Dr Coulter and the closing of the EMTU at the IMVS. Many letters have been written to newspapers, to the South Australian Minister for Health and to parliamentary leaders in South Australia. Trade unions, led by the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia,[34] have expressed concern about the removal of a service which frequently benefited their members. The opposition Labor Party in South Australia has called for a public inquiry into the IMVS,[35] and questions have been asked in the South Australian Parliament by members of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Democrats. An inquiry into the IMVS has been held, though this was mostly concerned with issues besides the Coulter case.[36] Dr Coulter has mounted a challenge against his dismissal in the South Australian Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Court.

The Coulter-IMVS dispute illustrates clearly the type of conflict that can arise where there is the possibility of pressures on the direction and use of scientific research exerted by corporate and bureaucratic vested interests on the one side and by workers and the general public on the other. Usually such conflict is muted. It is precisely because Dr Coulter has been outspoken about issues of public concern that his dismissal is also a public issue.

The issue is also a public one because there are no formal avenues for appeal or adjudication within the IMVS or the South Australian government for those opposed to the closing of the EMTU or the sacking of Dr Coulter. It remains to be seen whether public pressure will be sufficient to change the decision of the IMVS Council which is backed by the present South Australian government. But it is certain that this struggle will not be the last one of its kind.


Early in July 1980 Dr Coulter initiated a case against the IMVS in the South Australian Industrial Court, alleging wrongful dismissal. Such cases often require two years to complete. After 18 sitting days in court and 1237 pages of evidence, the hearing was adjourned sine die when the IMVS undertook to certify that Dr Coulter had been retrenched for the reason that there was no longer work available for which he was suitable and qualified. The IMVS also undertook to support an application by Dr Coulter for superannuation on the basis of this certification. In other words, the court case was suspended while Dr Coulter tried to obtain superannuation, in the hope of a quick settlement, with support from the IMVS which now said that he had been retrenched rather than dismissed.

The Superannuation Board initially rejected Dr Coulter's application. This decision was appealed to the Superannuation Tribunal, which in December 1981 ruled that Dr Coulter had been retrenched under section 67.1.13 of the Superannuation Act.

The resolution of Dr Coulter's case raises several points. First, the court procedure is heavily weighted against the victim of dismissal (or retrenchment). Dr Coulter, without income, was legally pitted against the IMVS, with, by comparison, virtually unlimited financial support, and whose executive members had nothing at risk financially. Nor indeed did they risk anything morally, since the dismissal (or retrenchment) was the responsibility of a corporate body, namely the IMVS.

Second, the court is not a forum for getting at the truth. Anything that did not apply specifically to the issue of whether the alleged dismissal was harsh, unjust or unreasonable was not considered. Once the case was taken before the Superannuation Board the underlying issues were submerged even further.

One interpretation of the events is that Dr Coulter was in fact wrongfully dismissed, but that the IMVS later found it preferable to interpret its action as retrenchment. This of course is not the official interpretation, which can be presented thus. Officially, the South Australian government could not afford to spend $33,000 per year to pay Dr Coulter to work on mutagenicity testing, hence his retrenchment. But the South Australian government can afford to pay over $50,000 in legal and other costs to obtain Dr Coulter's retrenchment, and henceforth to pay Dr Coulter $22,000 per year in superannuation to do nothing.

Dr Coulter now no longer has access to IMVS facilities. He is however free to carry out research on his own and to speak freely on environmental and health issues.


1. Brian Martin, "The scientific straightjacket: the power structure of science and the suppression of environmental scholarship", Ecologist, vol. 11, no. 1 (January/February 1981), pp. 33-43; Ralph Nader, Peter J. Petkas and Kate Blackwell (eds), Whistle Blowing: The Report of the Conference on Professional Responsibility (New York: Grossman, 1972); Samuel S. Epstein, The Politics of Cancer (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1978); Robert van den Bosch, The Pesticide Conspiracy (Garden City: Doubleday, 1978).

2. Bill Guy, "Does Dr. Coulter have to go?", Adelaide Advertiser, 17 June 1980, p. 5; Anonymous, "One man's work under fire", Canberra Times, 27 June 1980, p. 2; Deborah Smith, "Labor promises an inquiry into SA medical institute", National Times, 20-26 July 1980, p. 36.

3. Epstein, op. cit.

4. Bill Rust, "Unions irate at 'sacking' of scientist", Adelaide Advertiser, 8 April 1980, p. 6; Richie Gun, letter, Adelaide Advertiser, 12 April 1980, p. 5.

5. J. R. Coulter, "Memorandum to Fire and Safety Committee, IMVS", 16 April 1980.

6. J. A. Bonnin, letter to J. R. Coulter, 23 April 1980.

7. J. R. Coulter, "Memorandum to staff of the I.M.V.S.", 8 May 1980.

8. J. A. Bonnin, letter to J. R. Coulter, 9 May 1980.

9. Barry Hailstone, "Sacked for speaking out - scientist", Adelaide Advertiser, 31 March 1980, p. 12.

10. Barry Hailstone, "Director gives reasons for scientist's move", Adelaide Advertiser, 1 April 1980, p. 8.

11. Ibid.; J. A. Bonnin, letter, Adelaide Advertiser, 12 April 1980, p. 5; Guy, op. cit.; Anonymous, op. cit.; Smith, op. cit.

12. Hailstone, op. cit. (note 10).

13. P. R. S. Gouldhurst, letter, Adelaide Advertiser, 10 April 1980, p. 5.

14. Hailstone, op. cit. (note 10).

15. Epstein, op. cit.; Paul Brodeur, Expendable Americans (New York: Viking Press, 1974); Rachel Scott, Muscle and Blood (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974); R. Jeffrey Smith, "Creative penmanship in animal testing prompts FDA controls", Science, vol. 198 (23 December 1977), pp. 1227-9.

16. John R. Coulter and John V. Turner, "Tinidazole (TNZ) (Ethyl [2-(2-methyl-5-nitro-1-imidazolyl)ethyl] sulphone) is mutagenic in a Salmonella typhimurium assay", Mutation Research, Vol. 57 (1978), pp. 97-101.

17. D. G. Lindmark and M. Muller, "Antitrichomonal action, mutagenicity and reduction of metronidazole and other nitroimidazoles", Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, vol. 10 (1976), pp. 476-82.

18. Bonnin, op. cit. (note 11).

19. P. R. S. Gouldhurst, letter, Adelaide Advertiser, 22 April 1980, p. 5.

20. Hailstone, op. cit. (note 10).

21. Jennifer Adamson, "Mutagen testing" (news release) (Adelaide: Office of the Minister for Health, 4 July 1980); Smith, op. cit.

22. Hailstone, op. cit. (note 10); Bonnin, op. cit. (note 11).

23. Michael Ross, letter, Adelaide Advertiser, 18 April 1980, p. 5

24. Hailstone, op. cit. (note 10); Bonnin, op. cit. (note 11).

25. Gouldhurst, op. cit. (note 19).

26. Clyde Manwell, "Peer review: a case history from the Australian Research Grants
Committee", Search, Vol. 10, no. 3 (March 1979), pp. 81-8.

27. Hailstone, op. cit. (note 10); Bonnin, op. cit. (note 11).

28. Gouldhurst, op. cit. (note 19).

29. Bonnin, op. cit. (note 11.)

30. Gouldhurst, op. cit. (note 19).

31. Guy, op. cit.

32. Bonnin, op. cit. (note 11).

33. Smith, op. cit.

34. Rust, op. cit.

35. Smith, op. cit.

36. Barry Hailstone, "Clash of views", Adelaide Advertiser, 9 October 1980, p. 8; A. G. McGregor, letter, Adelaide Advertiser, 27 October 1980, p. 4; Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science (December 1980).