Don tastes poisonous revenge of PhD cheat

Imre Karacs on a case of academic ambition that almost ended in murder
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The Independent Online
THERE IS, it seems, no limit to human wickedness in the competitive world of academia. Scholars will slander one another in the name of science, corners are cut in the race for scarce research grants, and cheating threatens to turn into an epidemic. The pay is lousy, yet some will kill, so to speak, for a leg-up to the rarefied heights of the ivory tower. An exaggeration? Just ask the police in the German town of Giessen, who are investigating foul deeds at the local university, including arson, theft and a case of attempted murder.

It is a whodunit involving a senior scientist, poisoned at the university's Toxicology Institute. The suspect is a scientist who claims to have made a major breakthrough in genetics. But those who will really be in the dock, if the case ever comes to court, are the almighty professors lording it over German science.

Is it a coincidence that the man who precipitated this scandal is an outsider? For German science is supposed to be squeaky-clean, stained by only five cases of fraud in the 10 years up to 1997, when one of its leading cancer researchers was exposed as a serial fantasist. And then along came a Chinese scientist, Guangming Xiong.

Dr Xiong's great mistake was not to play by the rules. Delighted though he might have been by his student's startling achievement at cloning a rare gene, he insisted on seeing the evidence. The post-graduate student, a qualified vet who cannot be named for legal reasons, had trouble locating the X-ray films he had cited as proof. "I asked him at least 10 times, but he kept coming up with excuses all the time," Dr Xiong recalls. He informed his head of department that the breakthrough, however exciting, could not be verified.

Strange things began to happen. One day, Dr Xiong was rushed to hospital with apparent heart failure. His heart-rate had dropped to 20 beats a minute. "For five days I didn't really know what was going on around me," he says. When he emerged, he discovered that his student had been awarded the doctorate magna cum laude - the second highest honour.

Dr Xiong would not let the matter drop. He still wanted to see those X-rays, but circumstances kept thwarting him. There were break-ins, somebody had opened 15 gas taps while a Bunsen burner was alight in the lab and, in a separate incident, the library was set on fire. Evidence of every kind was vanishing fast.

The student, meanwhile, had become the toast of the town and secured a job as a post-doctoral research scientist at the university. Only one thing prevented the professors basking in his reflected glory: the awkward Chinese supervisor.

Dr Xiong takes up the story: At 3pm on Friday, 27 June 1997, his wife comes to visit, and spies the ex-student in her husband's lab. "I was in the computer room," Dr Xiong recalls. "On the desk in my lab is my cup of tea. I go in there and drink half the cup. About four hours later, my heart problems start again."

He is rushed to hospital and doctors detect five times the lethal dose of digitoxin, a drug extracted from the plant digitalis, in his blood. The police are called and digitoxin is found in the tea-cup left behind in the lab. Dr Xiong survives because of the speedy intervention of his doctors, who filter his blood. On what he fears is his deathbed, the sick man has only one piece of advice to his boss: "Check those X-rays."

Two years on, they are still missing. Prosecutors in Giessen have charged the ex-student with attempted murder, but, since no one saw him actually put powder into his supervisor's beverage, the case is shaky. The "breakthrough" was never published, but the inventive vet keeps the doctorate that has now been pronounced fraudulent. He has been "persuaded" to leave the university.

Dr Xiong is no longer at Giessen. "After all the trouble, the university did not want to extend my contract." He is, in fact, working at a more prestigious university, which, for the sake of his continued peace, shall remain nameless. "I don't want the people here to think I'm a trouble- maker," he says. "You understand, don't you?"