Tuesday Book: Of transgenic mice and men

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The Independent Culture


THE ONLY quarrel I have with this book concerns its title. The innocent reader is led to expect something along the lines of The Philadelphia Story or LA Confidential. Somehow, you know it will be be mis-shelved under "travel" or "crime".

Although it could fairly be described as a thriller, The Baltimore Case belongs in the history of science section. It is, I would hazard, among the best works in that select genre - and certainly one of the more accessible. Daniel Kevles is the author of the standard history of American physics, and of the eugenics movement from its utopian 19th-century origins to the Nazi death camps. He likes challenging topics.

In his latest book, Kevles offers a narrative on many levels. The main line traces the rise and fall and rise of David Baltimore. The wunderkind of American biology, Baltimore (the son of a New York garment worker) won a Nobel Prize in 1975, aged 37, for demonstrating how retroviruses work. It is one of Kevles' many virtues that he patiently explains the distinction between such things as RNA (the basis of retroviruses) and DNA, the genetic material of ordinary viruses.

As George Eliot put it in describing her brilliant young scientist, Lydgate, Baltimore the laureate "had his 35 years ahead of him". The future glistened. His subject was hot, and so was he. His work on retroviruses connected with the huge research campaign launched in the early Eighties to find a remedy for Aids, and with the Human Genome Project: "the code of codes". With the collapse of SDI - "Star Wars" - and the Texas-based particle accelerator (both victims of the end of the Cold War), biology became the biggest science.

Baltimore rose like a multi-stage rocket. He dropped his professorship at MIT to become director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. In 1989, he became president of Rockefeller University in New York. As the name suggests, this is not an institution lacking in financial resources. Aged only 50, Baltimore was at the top of science's slippery pole.

What followed was a mixture of Sophocles and Kafka. It began with one of the little dishonesties of American academic life: "honorary" authorship. If a scientist publishes a paper, senior colleagues in the laboratory (who may have contributed little or nothing) routinely claim part-authorship. One of Baltimore's team, Thereza Iminishi-Kari, had conducted some fascinating research on transgenic mice in the mid-Eighties. The paper was published in the premier biology journal, Cell, with Baltimore cited as (passive) co-author.

A junior member of the team, Margot O'Toole, found that she could not reproduce Iminishi-Kari's results. O'Toole was feisty; Iminishi-Kari stubborn and inarticulate (English is her "fifth language"). Baltimore did not suffer fools gladly. It could all have been worked out at the lab level, but it wasn't. What it came down to, as it often does in science, was ambiguous results tarted up a bit for publication. They all do it, and always have.

By 1989 the dispute was out of control. O'Toole lost her position at Rockefeller. The dreaded words "fraud" and "whistle-blower" were bruited. Huge sums of federal money have gone into American science, and Congress has become very suspicious. A sub-committee headed by a politician on the make was directed to investigate. The press scented a story. Margot O'Toole was attractive martyr material. The New York Times ran a story headlined "For Challenging her Boss's Data, a Scientist lost her Job and Home" and an editorial entitled "A Scientific Watergate".

Baltimore was forced to resign from his presidency in 1991. His views on public affairs were suddenly of no interest to the media and he was shut out of science policy-making circles. The wunderkind was a non-person.

The story has a moderately happy ending. In 1996, Iminishi-Kari was exonerated - but had lost so much ground that her career was effectively over. O'Toole (who had been used as a catspaw by the politicians) was out of science altogether. Baltimore, similarly exonerated, came out best. In 1997, he was appointed president of the California Institute of Technology: another top job. An older (he is now 60) and wiser man, he has said little publicly about the affair that came close to ruining him.

The Baltimore Case is fascinating as a human interest story. It is a useful way of finding out what is going in the cutting-edge life sciences. It is a timely indictment of the irresponsibility of politicians and press when they pronounce on science. And it's a book that does what books do best, and what the press and television often do badly; namely, it weighs up all the evidence on both sides before coming to a wise and judicious conclusion. In all the millions of words expended on the Baltimore case, Kevles' are the last and most convincing.

The reviewer is professor of English at University College, London