Witch Hunt In The Groves Of Academe


A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character

By Daniel J. Kevles

W.W. Norton 509pp $29.95

In 1986, David Baltimore, a Nobel prize-winning biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was working on a vitally important question concerning the human immune system: How does it build defenses against microbes it has never seen before? Baltimore was widely admired as a brilliant scientist and an influential teacher. He was also known to be arrogant and uncompromising. "David's strong point is not humility....He has an enormous amount of hubris, but I know few people more entitled to it," one scientist said.

As events began to unfold in May, 1986, Baltimore's hubris would intensify a scientific dispute that would eventually lead to a bitter rift with some of his oldest and closest friends, cost him one of the nation's most prestigious science posts, and threaten to destroy his career. Before it was over, the Baltimore case, as it came to be known, would become the focus of a punishing, bare-knuckled congressional investigation and spark a criminal investigation. A reprehensible episode in the history of American science, the case dragged on for 10 years before coming to an abrupt and surprising end.

As Daniel J. Kevles recounts in The Baltimore Case, the story began with Margot O'Toole, a young scientist doing research in the lab of Thereza Imanishi-Kari, one of Baltimore's MIT colleagues. Imanishi-Kari, Baltimore, and others had published a paper in the journal Cell with unexpected findings on how the immune system rearranges itself to produce antibodies against a microbial invader it is seeing for the first time. O'Toole was trying without success to repeat aspects of the research when she stumbled across data scrawled in a laboratory notebook that suggested to her the Cell study was wrong. Before long, O'Toole came to believe that the errors were deliberate. What had begun as a question of error became an allegation of fraud and scientific misconduct directed at Imanishi-Kari.

The charges were examined by researchers at MIT and at Tufts University, where Imanishi-Kari had been offered a job as an assistant professor. In the course of those discussions, Imanishi-Kari discovered that there were several mistakes in the paper, although none of them affected its conclusions. Baltimore suggested experiments that might be done to settle the questions. The case then caught the attention of the NIH, which funded much of Baltimore's research. O'Toole continued to press for a fuller investigation. Two self-styled fraud-busters at the NIH, Ned Feder and Walter W. Stewart, took the matter to Capitol Hill, where they discussed it with aides to Representative John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), a pugnacious righter of wrongs who relished uncovering abuses involving taxpayers' money. Baltimore soon found himself defending Imanishi-Kari and her research in the naked light of a full-scale Dingell investigation. Dingell referred the case to the U.S. Attorney in Maryland, and Imanishi-Kari faced the possibility of criminal charges.

In The Baltimore Case, Kevles, a historian at the California Institute of Technology, also becomes a righter of wrongs. He shows, in unrelenting detail, how the case spun out of control, turning a dispute over minor errors and differing interpretations into a modern-day witch hunt.

Kevles spreads the blame around. A scorching NIH condemnation of Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore was based on innuendo and hearsay, Kevles says. Furthermore, Imanishi-Kari and Baltimore had none of the due-process protections they would have had in a court of law. Dingell's investigators, Kevles says, tainted the investigation with press leaks. And the press simply regurgitated what it was handed, without probing the merits of the case.

In the midst of all of this, Baltimore was named president of Rockefeller University in New York, one of the nation's leading research universities. A little more than a year later, however, he was forced to resign when he lost the support of a crucial segment of the senior faculty. Throughout the 10-year ordeal, Kevles notes, Baltimore received almost no support from his scientific colleagues. Some of his closest friends turned against him, denouncing him in public.

The sad episode finally came to an end in 1996, when an NIH appeals panel dismissed all charges and castigated its own investigative office. Baltimore became a sad sort of hero, praised for his steadfast defense of his far less powerful colleague. Imanishi-Kari was belatedly awarded tenure at Tufts. Baltimore, who returned to MIT after resigning the Rockefeller University presidency, was named president of the California Institute of Technology in 1996. (Kevles began work on the book and published his view of the case in The New Yorker before Baltimore came to Caltech.)

Kevles' story is sometimes overwhelmed by detail, but it eloquently drives home the point that "a great injustice was perpetrated in the name of scientific integrity," as he puts it. Baltimore's reputation is now largely restored, but the lingering question is whether his defiance, his unwillingness to compromise, might have prolonged the sad affair. Those qualities served him well in science--but perhaps not so well in the Baltimore case.