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Race-row doctor faces trial over patients' deaths

SEEN as carrying out Nazi-style experiments by some and as a victim of racial vendetta by others, Richard McGown goes to Zimbabwe's High Court today to face charges that his use of unorthodox anaesthetics killed five patients.

That the case has taken on heavy racial overtones since it broke in October 1990 - he is white and three of the patients were black - was inevitable, given the bitter history of white minority rule and the independence war that ended 14 years ago. Disputes over the government's efforts to acquire farmland, mainly white- owned, and vitriolic attacks on whites by leading politicians, such as the Deputy President, Joshua Nkomo, have ensured a high profile for the case.

At its centre is Dr McGown, 57, a father of three who was born in India, raised in Scotland, studied at Edinburgh and trained in Sweden. He has denied any wrongdoing, but informed neither his patients, over 500 in all, nor his superiors, that he was using the method, which doctors have said runs the risk of provoking respiratory failure.

Smith Marara, an MP who presented a parliamentary select committee report on the case in March 1993, said Dr McGown had said 'that he was particularly interested to find out the sensitivity of black females to morphine when this narcotic is injected epidurally.' The patients who died were 19-month-old Kalpesh Nagindas after circumcision; two-year-old Tsitsi Chidodo after dental treatment; Irene Papatheocharous, 26, a white, after an operation to remove a gallstone and appendix; Rose Osazuwa, 62, who had her bladder tightened; and 10-year-old Lavender Khaminwa, who had her appendix removed.

The Minister of Health, Dr Timothy Stamps, one of two whites in President Robert Mugabe's government, has defended the epidural method as 'conventional, safe and time- honoured'. But it required close post-operative monitoring which was lacking in the private Avenues Clinic in Harare where Dr McGown practised. Investigations resulted from a campaign by Charles and Mary Khaminwa after their daughter's death.

Mr Khaminwa, a Kenyan lawyer trained in the US, had sent Lavender to the clinic. She died a few hours after the operation.

The Khaminwas had to sell property in Kenya to fly in international experts to review the autopsy, but inquiries by police and the Health Professionals Council dragged on until October 1990 when the independent weekly, the Financial Gazette, published a story on the case. A month later, 200 University of Zimbabwe students staged a protest march.

In March 1993 the parliamentary select committee report appeared with testimony that Dr McGown had settled out of court with the families of several patients who had suffered brain damage. Within 48 hours, he was charged with five counts of premeditated murder, later reduced to culpable homicide, and released on bail, the equivalent of pounds 100,000. The Attorney-General allowed Dr McGown to return to work under the restriction of not using epidural injections. He did use them and was banned for violating normal hospital procedures.