TORONTO — Officials at Queen’s University launched an investigation Wednesday into claims that a health sciences instructor has been teaching anti-vaccination materials in a first-year level course.
The allegation was raised on Twitter by a current student and a former student of the Kingston, Ont.-based university, who posted images of PowerPoint slides that were purportedly used in the class Health 102.
Melody Torcolacci, an adjunct professor, did not respond to interview requests from The Canadian Press.
Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf took to Twitter to say he’s asked the university’s provost, Alan Harrison, to investigate the allegation. In an interview, Harrison said he and Woolf first heard of the claim when the Twitter conversation took off.
Among the questions Harrison wants answered is whether Torcolacci’s department has received complaints in the past about the content of her lectures.
“I’m gathering information. That information gathering will include attempting to determine whether others in the university have ever had any sorts of issues raised with them about similar matters,” Harrison said.
The local medical officer of health could actually answer that question for Harrison. Dr. Ian Gemmill reviewed Torcolacci’s material two years ago when a friend’s child took her class. Alarmed by what he saw, Gemmill wrote to the head of the kinesiology and health sciences department to object.
“The tone of it is clearly skewed to ‘vaccine is bad,'” he said. “It’s got elements of truth to it, which make it slightly credible. But there are a lot of things in it which are not correct.”
Gemmill later spoke with department head Jean Cote. “And I understood that this would be looked after.”
Wednesday’s online discussion began when a current student, Michael Green, tweeted: “Can we talk about how horrible it is that Melody Torcolacci still teaches that vaccines cause autism in university level classes?”
Former Queen’s student Isabelle Duchaine, now working on a master’s degree in global governance at the University of Waterloo, began to tweet slides from a PowerPoint presentation that Torcolacci allegedly used in her class. Duchaine said the recent surge in measles cases inspired her action.
One of the PowerPoint slides states there is no scientific proof vaccines aren’t contributing to increased incidences of chronic illness and disability in children. Another quotes an alternative medicine website as saying it’s not known whether fetuses are harmed when pregnant women get flu shots.
In fact, many studies have explored that question and have concluded that pregnant women should be vaccinated against influenza, which can cause more severe illness during pregnancy. And the alleged link between measles vaccine and autism has been soundly debunked.
Duchaine was an academic affairs commissioner on the Queen’s student government body in 2012-13, when at least three students complained to her about Torcolacci’s anti-vaccination teachings. She directed them to Torcolacci’s department.
“I would find it very surprising that a small department like the school of kinesiology and health studies would not have been aware that this was an issue, given that they were the ones who hired her,” Duchaine said, noting that the concerns were likely voiced in student course assessments.
Several former students raised the issue on the website RateMyProfessor.com.
“She cites long discredited ‘scientists’ and her lecture slides suggest a connection between autism and vaccines,” one commented in 2012. The website does not require posters to identify themselves, so it’s impossible to verify of the person actually took Torcolacci’s course.
Harrison wasn’t willing to talk about what the university will do if it determines that Torcolacci has been espousing anti-vaccination views in her classes.
“Slides are not lectures. Slides are a support for lectures. And so a full information gathering would require that I understand the context in which anything that is put in front of the students is used,” Harrison said. “Context is everything.”
Still, he said the university does expect its professors to meet its standards.
“Academic freedom is, in my view, not unfettered,” he said.
“We do have expectations of all of our professors. And those expectations are that they present available scientific evidence, they do so objectively and if they have biases of their own, they declare those biases.
“If our expectations aren’t fulfilled, then we’d have to consider our actions as a consequence of that.”
— Follow @HelenBranswell on Twitter