CHICAGO — A prominent Seattle surgeon facing disciplinary charges for telling lawmakers misleading stories about fatally burned babies has surrendered his medical license.
The state of Washington had alleged that Dr. David Heimbach, who for two decades headed the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center, fabricated testimony and falsely presented himself as an unbiased burn expert when he was, in fact, collecting $240,000 from flame-retardant manufacturers. His activities were exposed in a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation.
His stories at the time helped persuade lawmakers to vote down legislation that would have scaled back use of the chemicals, which are added to furniture cushions but don’t provide any meaningful protection from home fires.
The state’s move, made public Wednesday, represents a stunning fall for one of the nation’s most noted burn surgeons. In addition to his Harborview post, Heimbach was a longtime surgery professor at the University of Washington. He even once received an award from the Dalai Lama for his care of burn victims around the world.
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But he could not withstand the most serious charge against him: telling lawmakers gripping stories of babies who suffered fatal burns while on cushioning without flame retardants. The infants, as he described them, did not exist.
Heimbach in 2010 and 2011 was a paid consultant for Citizens for Fire Safety, which the Tribune exposed as a front group for the three largest makers of flame retardants.
Earlier this year, Heimbach, who is 75, told authorities that he had retired from Harborview and the University of Washington, no longer practiced medicine and had moved to Hawaii.
In an earlier interview with the Tribune, Heimbach said his testimony about babies dying in fires was not about different children but about the same infant. But the newspaper reported that this baby did not die in the way that he described and that flame retardants were not a factor. Heimbach later said he changed details about the child to protect her privacy.
After the newspaper series was published, California regulators, whose standard was responsible for the widespread use of flame retardants in American furniture, changed the rules so that furniture can be made without the use of the chemicals. And the chemical industry front group that paid Heimbach folded.