Richard Smith: Surgical editor loses job through overselling semen

Richard SmithI’ve a collection of stories editors of medical publications coming unstuck, often in bizarre ways, but the story of Lazar Greenfield departing Surgery News and causing a whole issue to disappear will be the Mona Lisa of my collection.

Surgery News is published by Elsevier and is the official newspaper of the American College of Surgeons. Greenfield is a professor of surgery at the University of Michigan and was until his downfall the president elect of the American College of Surgeons.

His downfall, inevitably known now as “semengate,” was prompted by an editorial, really just a musing, he published in the February issue. He took Valentine’s Day and love as his theme and wrote what I think is a jolly piece. He’s clearly a well read chap and a lover of science—and he stitched together some intriguing scientific findings. As somebody who had to write a similar “editorial” most weeks for 15 years, I can imagine him looking for something new and enjoying himself late at night putting together a piece that he hopes will interest and amuse jaded surgeons.

After reminding us that St Valentine may have been a priest who secretly performed marriages, Greenfield riffs delightfully on the sex lives of flies, bacteria, and rotifers—with several references to recent scientific publications. Humans are his undoing.

Heterosexual women living together, he reminds us, begin to menstruate together—but, and I didn’t know this, lesbians don’t. It might, researchers think, be semen that makes the difference, and Greenfield tells us that semen includes “mood enhancers like estrone, cortisol, prolactin, oxytocin, and serotonin; a sleep enhancer, melatonin; and of course, sperm, which makes up only 1%-5%.” Beginning to skate on thin ice, he writes that “Female college students having unprotected sex were significantly less depressed than were those whose partners used condoms.” This comes from the Archives of Sexual Behavior, and it seems to be the semen rather than the sex “because women using condoms were just as depressed as those practicing total abstinence.”

As is taught in many schools of writing, Greenfield returned at the end of his piece to his beginning, putting the tail of the snake into its mouth, and wrote: “So there’s a deeper bond between men and women than St. Valentine would have suspected, and now we know there’s a better gift for that day than chocolates.”

I imagine him finishing his piece about midnight, probably with a glass of claret inside him, and feeling well pleased.

Unfortunately some members of the American College of Surgeons were not impressed, delighted, and amused. They were offended and complained. In what seems to me a dreadful over-reaction the college pulled the issue from the website and presumably had words with Greenfield. He resigned his post and subsequently had to step down as president elect. The college looks ridiculous.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.