Professor Simon Wessely: Retired, tired or hired?


From Suzy Chapman & Ciaran Farrell

14 April 2008

Professor Simon Wessely: Retired, tired or hired?

Unless you’ve had your head stuck in a bucket for the past four weeks, you’ll be most likely aware that one of the several psychiatrists whom Dr John Scadding invited onto his CFS Conference Planning Group, is Professor Simon Wessely.

Simon Wessely (KCL) and fellow Planning Group members, psychiatrists Peter Denton White (BARTS, PI PACE Trials) and Mathew Hotopf (IoP), have all invited each other to be speakers at this CFS conference. It’s all very cosy.

We are sure fellow psychiatrists are delighted that Professor Wessely has come out of his “retirement” from CFS research not only to sit on the Planning Group for this meeting but to also address the conference, itself.

Professor Simon Wessely will speak on Epidemiology at 10.55am, following Dr Anthony Cleare (IoP) and before Professor Chris Dowrick who, incidentally, is a member of the FINE Trial research group.

On 20 September 2001, the Guardian published an article by Health Editor, Sarah Boseley, quoting Professor Wessely: 

Storm brews over ‘all in mind’ theory of ME 

The article is still available and we recommend that you read it – it’s quite short.,3604,554693,00.html

In this exceedingly emotive piece of journalism, Ms Boseley reported:

“Prof Wessely has quit the field – and is not the only professional to have ceased involvement with CFS.”

Remember, this was reported in September 2001, over six years ago.

More recently, in November 2006, the Group on Scientific Research into ME (GSRME) reported:

“[…] Wessely gave up the [CFS] research side of his work…”
[Report of the GSRME: Page 19, Section 3.2 Other Evidence We Received: Prof Simon Wessely]

So we were interested to see that Professor Simon Wessely has had another new paper published, this March, in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine. One of his co-authors is Professor Matthew Hotopf, Institute of Psychiatry, London, a fellow member of the RSM CFS Conference Planning Committee who is also addressing the meeting, on the topic of “Assessment: psychiatrist’s approach”.

You can read the Abstract of Professor Wessely’s latest paper here:

Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine
Etiology of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Testing Popular Hypotheses Using a National Birth Cohort Study: Samuel B. Harvey , MRCpsych, Michael Wadsworth , PhD, Simon Wessely , MD, Matthew Hotopf , PhD. Published online before print March 31, 2008

Professor Wessely has also had an additional paper published in March 2008 – this one in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

In September 2007, we wrote to Dr Ian Gibson MP, former chair of the since disbanded GSRME group (known colloquially as the “Gibson Group”).

Amongst a number of questions we put to Dr Gibson in relation to specific claims his panel made in their report, under Section 3.2 Other Evidence We Received, we asked:

1] Would you please provide a reference source for the panel’s statement that Prof Wessely has given up the [CFS] research side of his work?

2] Would you please confirm the date beyond which Prof Wessely was understood by the GSRME panel to have ceased undertaking research studies in the field of CFS research?

Either Professor Wessely had retired from CFS research prior to the Gibson Inquiry or he had not retired; we considered that having chaired the GSRME Inquiry, Dr Gibson was accountable for what his panel had written in their report and that he should be happy to provide a definitive reference for the hitherto unreferenced claims the GSRME panel had made in Section 3.2.

But Dr Gibson was unable to provide us with a reference source nor could he provide us with a date by which Professor Wessely was understood by the panel to have given up the CFS research side of his work.

Although he had been invited to do so, Professor Wessely chose not to present Oral Evidence or send in a Written Submission to the inquiry being undertaken by the GSRME, in 2006.

Instead, Professor Wessely sent a very lengthy letter to the GSRME panel.

The purpose of this letter and its contents were never defined or disclosed by the GSRME, nor has it ever been made clear whether parts of the panel’s largely unreferenced report were based on information contained within this letter – a letter which, in our opinion, should have been disregarded for the purposes of the inquiry and not used in any way by the panel to inform themselves, since this document had not been received through the proper channels and sat outside the material submitted under “Written Submissions” to the inquiry.

Nevertheless, the GSRME panel does allude to opinions expressed by Professor Wessely, originating from this letter, in Section 3.2 of its report.

In the absence of a reference in the report, itself, it occurred to us that the claim that Professor Wessely had given up the [CFS] research side of his work might also have originated from the content of Professor Wessely’s letter and we asked Dr Gibson for a clarification.

But Dr Gibson has been unwilling to confirm or deny whether the claim made in the report had been based on information contained within the letter his panel had received.

What Dr Gibson has told us is that the GSRME panel considers that the letter sent to them by Professor Wessely was a piece of personal correspondence never meant for the public” and that in Dr Gibson’s opinion, it should remain that way and that Professor Wessely was said to be in agreement with Dr Gibson that the letter should not be released.”

Why did Professor Wessely submit a lengthy missive to the GSRME panel which was considered by himself and the GSRME to be a piece of personal correspondence never meant for the public” in lieu of tendering a Written Submission in an open and transparent manner through the official channels, for what was intended to be a “public” inquiry?

We considered it disturbing that Professor Wessely felt the need to set certain information, views, opinions or other material before a panel of parliamentarians engaged in an unofficial inquiry but that he did not feel he should be equally open and transparent with the ME community and the wider public.

It is not unknown, of course, for this type of practice to go on in relation to inquiries – whether it is acceptable or in the public interest is another matter.

If material contained within “the Wessely letter” had been used to inform the panel in the writing up of their report or in any way shaped their own views and opinions, it is not possible for the inquiry’s constituency of interest, that is, the ME community, or the wider public to assess whether the GSRME panel had made a fair and reasonable evaluation of the content of this communication, since the document is not being made available for public scrutiny.

Since neither Dr Gibson, nor apparently, Professor Wessely, has been willing to release this document to us, we have been unable to establish whether this letter was the source of various contentious statements made by the panel within Section 3.2 of their report.

With no reference source to confirm the GSRME’s claim forthcoming, the true status of Professor Wessely’s involvement in the field of CFS research has therefore been left hanging by Dr Gibson and his panel, and this and other unreferenced statements contained within the “Gibson Report” remain unsubstantiated and cannot be relied upon.

In his final response to us on these matters, Dr Gibson made the suggestion thatin order to see what sort of output a scientist is producing [we] might want to look on Medline and also the home pages of their institution.”

We were somewhat bemused that rather than simply confirm his panel’s source for the basis of the statement in question, that Dr Gibson suggests we go and carry out our own researches by trawling databases like PubMed and the websites of the institutions with which this Professor is associated!

By setting us the task of proving or disproving claims made within the Report, it suggested to us that perhaps Dr Gibson is no longer quite as confident as he was in the reliability of the claims his panel had made in 2006.

We had, of course, done our homework before contacting Dr Gibson.

Put “Wessely, Simon” in the search field of PubMed and you will find that there have been numerous published studies on CFS co-authored by Professor Simon Wessely since 2005, when the GSRME panel first put out a call for written evidence to be submitted to its inquiry.

There have been 14 papers published by Professor Wessely in the field of CFS research since Spring 2005, alone, the latest, as already mentioned, published within the last two or three weeks.

Carry out a search from 2002 onwards, and out of 136 papers listed on PubMed for Simon Wessely, 25 are in the area of “CFS” or overlapping studies – not a bad output for someone who, in 2001, was said to have already quit the field!

Allowing a couple of years for any ongoing studies to reach their completion dates and adding on another year, say, for publication of papers, then we might have anticipated that by around 2004, Professor Wessely’s output for CFS studies would have all but ceased.

But Professor Wessely appears to have been beavering away on study after study, publishing paper after paper, with yet another two out this March.

Rather than having given up “the [CFS] research side of his work”, as claimed in the Gibson Report, Professor Wessely appears to continue to combine CFS research with his other areas of interest.

So what motivates Professor Wessely to claim to have quit CFS research, when in reality this would appear not to be the case?

In the 2001 Guardian article Ms Boseley quotes him as saying:

“There are many who have found themselves vilified and…have joined the ranks of others who have been abused and intimidated for producing research unpopular to powerful special interests.”

The following week, Ms Boseley had written:

“Simon Wessely, of the Department of Psychological Medicine at Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’s School of Medicine in London, is a former key figure in the study of ME/CFS who has felt the heat and largely backed out of the kitchen.”
[A very modern epidemic, Guardian, 27 September 2001],,559001,00.html

The GSRME panel made similar, entirely unreferenced claims in its own report that:

“[…] Wessely gave up the research side of his work possibly due to extreme harassment he received from a very small fringe section of the ME community.”
[Report of the GSRME, Page 19, Section 3.2]

But my colleague, who had engaged Professor Wessely in conversation after he had delivered his 2006 Gresham College lecture, relates that if he understood the Professor correctly, Wessely had sought to convey that he felt there was only very limited scope for further work in his particular varieties of CFS research studies within the overall sphere of CFS research. He expressed the view that he wanted to move away from CFS research and into other, broader and more historical research, involving neurasthenia, chronic fatigue and other historically based diagnostic entities. Therefore, it would appear that Professor Wessely was seeking new and fresher pastures to research.

So, had the Professor quit CFS research prior to the 2001 Guardian articles because he could no longer stomach the vilification he alleges he is subject to? The results from PubMed don’t support this.

Or has he merely tired of the area of CFS research but it suits his purpose to provide journalists with a more catastrophic rationale for allegedly having given up his work in this field?

One cynic has suggested that perhaps Professor Wessely moved out of the area of CFS research some years ago, but is lending his name and the kudos it attracts to the research studies of others.

It is a pity that Professor Wessely declined an invitation to speak at one of the Gibson Inquiry Oral Hearings because we are certain these are questions that many of those present would have been vying to put to him.

It is also unfortunate that members of the public are being excluded from the RSM’s Conference on 28 April because that would have presented another opportunity for Professor Wessely to explain to the ME community, to members of the RSM, to medics and attendees from the health care professions how come so many papers have been published in his name, since 2002, when he was already claiming to have “quit the field”.

Perhaps Professor Wessely ought to clarify the content of the briefings and quotes he has given to various newspapers and the impression he conveyed to the GSRME in his private letter to them and whether he feels that he has been misquoted or misrepresented by those concerned when they have reported his views in their publications?

Suzy Chapman & Ciaran Farrell


PubMed: Papers published since January 2002 in the field of CFS by Simon Wessely including several where there is likely to be an overlap with CFS (Note: papers on GWS and fields other than CFS have been omitted from the search return of a total of 136 papers.)

Update: A number of additional papers have been published by Prof Wessely since this article was posted – see PubMed.

Roberts A, Papadopoulos AS, Wessely S, Chalder T, Cleare AJ.

Salivary cortisol output before and after cognitive behavioural therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome
Journal of Affective Disorders, 2008, Oct.

Cho HJ, Bhugra D, Wessely S.

‘Physical or psychological?’- a comparative study of causal attribution for chronic fatigue in Brazilian and British primary care patients. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2008 Jul;118(1):34-41. Epub 2008 May 22. PMID: 18498433 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Search field: Wessely, Simon

1: Harvey SB, Wadsworth M, Wessely S, Hotopf M.

Etiology of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: Testing Popular Hypotheses
Psychosom Med. 2008 Mar 31; [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 18378866 [PubMed – as supplied by publisher]

2: Cho HJ, Menezes PR, Bhugra D, Wessely S.

The awareness of chronic fatigue syndrome: A comparative study in Brazil and the United Kingdom.
J Psychosom Res. 2008 Apr;64(4):351-5. PMID: 18374733 [PubMed – in process]

11: Kanaan RA, Lepine JP, Wessely SC.

The association or otherwise of the functional somatic syndromes
J Psychosom Med. 2007 Dec;69(9):855-9. Review. PMID: 18040094 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

12: Rimes KA, Goodman R, Hotopf M, Wessely S, Meltzer H, Chalder T.

Incidence, prognosis, and risk factors for fatigue and chronic fatigue syndrome in adolescents: a prospective community study.
Pediatrics. 2007 Mar;11 (3):e603-9. PMID: 17332180 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

23: Quarmby L, Rimes KA, Deale A, Wessely S, Chalder T.

Cognitive behaviour therapy for chronic fatigue syndrome: comparison of outcomes within and outside the confines of a randomised controlled trial.
Behav Res Ther. 2007 Jun;45(6):1085-94. Epub 2006 Oct 30. PMID: 17074300 [PubMed – in process]

32: Jerjes WK, Taylor NF, Peters TJ, Wessely S, Cleare AJ.

Urinary cortisol and cortisol metabolite excretion in chronic fatigue syndrome.
Psychosom Med. 2006 Jul-Aug;68(4):578-82. PMID: 16868267 [PubMed – in process]

43: Reid S, Chalder T, Cleare A, Hotopf M, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Clin Evid. 2005 Dec;(14):1366-78. Review. No abstract available. PMID: 16620458 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

44: Cho HJ, Skowera A, Cleare A, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome: an update focusing on phenomenology and pathophysiology.
Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2006 Jan;19(1):67-73. Review. PMID: 16612182 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

52: Jerjes WK, Peters TJ, Taylor NF, Wood PJ, Wessely S, Cleare AJ.

Diurnal excretion of urinary cortisol, cortisone, and cortisol metabolites in chronic fatigue syndrome.
J Psychosom Res. 2006 Feb;60(2):145-53. PMID: 16439267 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

54: Huibers MJ, Wessely S.

The act of diagnosis: pros and cons of labelling chronic fatigue syndrome.
Psychol Med. 2006 Jul;36(7):895-900. Epub 2006 Jan 10. Review. PMID: 16403245 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

60: Cho HJ, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome: an overview.
Rev Bras Psiquiatr. 2005 Sep;27(3):174-5. Epub 2005 Oct 4. No abstract available. PMID: 16224602 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

71: Jerjes WK, Cleare AJ, Wessely S, Wood PJ, Taylor NF.

Diurnal patterns of salivary cortisol and cortisone output in chronic fatigue syndrome.
J Affect Disord. 2005 Aug;87(2-3):299-304. PMID: 15922454 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

73: Reid S, Chalder T, Cleare A, Hotopf M, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Clin Evid. 2004 Dec;(12):1578-93. Review. No abstract available. Update in: Clin Evid. 2005 Dec;(14):1366-78. PMID: 15865734 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

74: Cho HJ, Hotopf M, Wessely S.

The placebo response in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome: a systematic review and meta analysis.
Psychosom Med. 2005 Mar-Apr;67(2):301-13. Review. PMID: 15784798 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE] MEagenda 09:42, 21 September 2007 (UTC)

91: Reid S, Chalder T, Cleare A, Hotopf M, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Clin Evid. 2003 Dec;(10):1289-303. Review. No abstract available. Update in: Clin Evid. 2004 Dec;(12):

103: Woolley J, Allen R, Wessely S.

Alcohol use in chronic fatigue syndrome.
J Psychosom Res. 2004 Feb;56(2):203-6. PMID: 15016579 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

104: Winkler AS, Blair D, Marsden JT, Peters TJ, Wessely S, Cleare AJ.

Autonomic function and serum erythropoietin levels in chronic fatigue syndrome.
J Psychosom Res. 2004 Feb;56(2):179-83. PMID: 15016575 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

106: Roberts AD, Wessely S, Chalder T, Papadopoulos A, Cleare AJ.

Salivary cortisol response to awakening in chronic fatigue syndrome.
Br J Psychiatry. 2004 Feb;184:136-41. PMID: 14754825 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

109: Lyall M, Peakman M, Wessely S.

A systematic review and critical evaluation of the immunology of chronic
fatigue syndrome.
J Psychosom Res. 2003 Aug;55(2):79-90. Review. PMID: 12932505 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

118: Fischhoff B, Wessely S.

Managing patients with inexplicable health problems.
BMJ. 2003 Mar 15;326(7389):595-7. Review. No abstract available. PMID: 12637409 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

119: Reid S, Chalder T, Cleare A, Hotopf M, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Clin Evid. 2002 Dec;(8):1075-88. Review. No abstract available. Update in: Clin
Evid. 2003 Dec;(10):1289-303. PMID: 12603930 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

122: Wessely S.

Women experienced chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia as stigmatising.
Evid Based Ment Health. 2002 Nov;5(4):127. No abstract available. PMID: 12440469 [PubMed]

125: Reid S, Chalder T, Cleare A, Hotopf M, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome.
Clin Evid. 2002 Jun;(7):966-78. Review. No abstract available. Update in: Clin Evid. 2002 Dec (8):1075-88. PMID: 12230719 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

134: Reid S, Wessely S, Crayford T, Hotopf M.

Frequent attenders with medically unexplained symptoms: service use and costs in secondary care.
Br J Psychiatry. 2002 Mar;180:248-53. PMID: 11872517 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

136: Clark C, Buchwald D, MacIntyre A, Sharpe M, Wessely S.

Chronic fatigue syndrome: a step towards agreement.
Lancet. 2002 Jan 12;359(9301):97-8. No abstract available. Erratum in: Lancet
2002 Apr 13;359(9314):1352. Lancet 2002 May 25;359(9320):1866. PMID: 11809249 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

Another good example of Professor Wessely’s continued involvement in CFS research are the PACE Trials.

“The following information contained within “THE PACE TRIAL IDENTIFIER”:

“The trial will be run by the trial co-ordinator who will be based at Barts and the London, with the principal investigator (PI), and alongside two of the six clinical centres. He/she will liaise regularly with staff at the Clinical Trials Unit (CTU) who themselves will be primarily responsible for randomisation and database design and management (overseen by the centre statistician Dr Tony Johnson), directed by Professor Simon Wessely, in collaboration with Professor Janet Darbyshire at the MRC CTU”




Suzy Chapman

Ciaran Farrell

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