A scientific journal has retracted a 1951 paper written by a UW-Madison professor due to defamatory content toward homosexual participants of a study that attempted to convert them to be straight.
The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease flagged the article, “Observations on Homosexuality Among University Students,” which was written by UW professor Benjamin Glover. The study based itself on psychotherapy work and Glover’s belief that he could “cure” homosexual attraction.
Most retractions of scholarly articles come immediately after publication due to plagiarism or technical errors during their research. However, Glover’s study became marked by a scarlet letter because it advanced “long discredited beliefs, prejudices and practices.”
Glover’s psychotherapy attempts to eliminate homosexual attraction among gay men proved unsuccessful. In the article, Glover attributed the failure to student participants' lack of cooperation, declaring that “these people” have a “narcissistic selfishness in their disregard for people as a whole.”
Retired neurologist Simon LeVay discovered the piece “many years ago,” and requested that the paper be flagged this fall. The paper stood out to him for years due to Glover’s “unusual level of venom” towards the study’s participants, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
“I think we’re in a time of rethinking,” LeVay said. “There is a spry of movement right now and it’s a controversial one. Quite a few people think it’s wrong to get a paper retracted for what people consider moral reasons instead of objective ones.”
LeVay, who studies the biological basis of sexual orientation, emailed the scientific journal’s editor-in-chief John Talbott to retract the article after reading a study of psychologist Hans Eysenck’s decades-old work, which was also under scrutiny.
“This wasn’t some crank writing me,” Talbott said of LeVay’s September email. “He’s a real scientist that said I should go look at this. So, I went and read it and thought it was ridiculous.”
Some scientists opposed the paper’s retraction, arguing that the paper reflects the time period it was written under, and political correctness rather than scientific reasons served as the motivating reason for retracting the paper, according to the State Journal.
However, LeVay noted that other psychiatrists conducted similar experiments on college campuses in the 1950s, and did little to change the sexual preferences of gay students or report demeaning sentiments toward study participants as well.
Articles like Glover’s could be equally as destructive as an article about medical dosages based on manipulated statistics is today, Talbott said, because they fueled homophobic attitudes.
“I think we need to call out papers said to be scientific that are not,” Talbott said. “I feel very strongly about this. I think we’ve done an enormous disservice to Blacks, to Indians, to gays, to women, through pretending to be science. Prejudices of the past are out there. Perhaps the article and retraction will stimulate others to look back.”
The paper will remain in the journal’s archives for historical value.
UW-Madison officials called the retraction of Glover’s article a “laudable decision.”
“Ideas like these have caused incalculable pain in society — and on our campus — over the years,” a university statement said. “Today we recognize the need to repair that harm, conduct research and [provide] mental health care that is guided by science and not prejudice, and to treat LGBTQ+ people and people of color with dignity and respect.”
In 1992, UW-Madison established a Gender and Sexuality Campus Center that has recently been relocated and expanded, officials said. The university has also hired staff specializing in working with LGBTQ+ students and employees.
UW-Madison counts at least 14 LGBTQ+ student organizations, and University Housing now offers a gender and sexuality learning community.