THE MIND OF A WHISTLE BLOWER
HER FIGHT FOR SCIENTIFIC TRUTH HAS VINDICATED MARGOT O'TOOLE

Author: By Barbara Carton, Globe Staff

Date: 04/01/1991 Page: 42
Section: LIVING

Her father always tried to do the right thing, even if no one listened. Family legend has it that his warning of an industrial accident went unheeded. There was later an explosion, and someone died.

Like father, like daughter. In 1985, when Margot O'Toole saw Boston police Detective Francis G. Kelly Jr. pummeling restaurant worker Long Quang Huang in Chinatown, she complained.

The case made front-page headlines and resulted in a one-year suspension of the police detective.

Then, in 1986, O'Toole spoke out again. A postdoctoral fellow in immunology at MIT, she questioned the accuracy of crucial data contained in a scientific paper based on research conducted by her supervisor, Dr. Thereza Imanishi- Kari. It was an incredibly nervy thing to do, for not only was O'Toole a junior employee -- a trainee, really -- but the co-author of the paper was a distinguished scientist: Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and the current president of Rockefeller University.

Some people call it "whistle blowing"; others say it is simply a matter of values. But not everyone has the same sense of responsibility, or the stomach for the fight. Most whistle blowers get ripped apart by the stress and often see their careers destroyed, so it's no wonder that few are willing to take the chance.

Then there are the O'Tooles, who seem to have it in their blood.

"It's nothing for an O'Toole to throw away a career for a principle," says Margot's mother, Elizabeth, a home economics teacher in the Brookline schools. "That whole clan of O'Tooles -- they were on the eastern coast of Ireland and faced the brunt of all the invasions. They were one of the oldest
clans, and a top one. There's a history. That's what it is. You could go down through history and you would see the things that they did. Fiercely independent is what they are."

James D. B. O'Toole, Margot's late father, is a case in point. An Irishman who was an engineer, he also spoke seven languages, worked for a time as a newspaper editor in China, as a foreign affairs analyst on Irish television and radio and, after emigrating to the United States when Margot was 14, as an associate professor of science journalism at Boston University.

But when it came to principles vs. career, there wasn't any question, his wife says.

"He lived by his ideals, and he expected the kids to do the same," she remembers. "He was a very original, individual man and certainly was very outspoken in his opinion."

The newspaper clipping is yellowed and brittle, but it tells part of the James O'Toole story:

James O'Toole is a man of many talents. While holding a top engineering position with Ireland's national power undertaking, the Electricity Supply Board, he wrote "Man Alive," a highly controversial play.

In this work, produced at Dublin's Olympia Theater, he made a sharp frontal assault on bureaucracy of the type associated with state-sponsored enterprises, in one of which he was then an employee.

"It was a good play; it had intellectual depth," his wife remembers. ''And it cuts to the bone of the present-day situation -- that whole business of trying to remain a moral person."

The elder O'Toole also expected his three daughters, including Margot, to be as good at math and science as was his son, Larry. He tried to encourage a knowledge of how science worked. But it wasn't just science; O'Toole, who had grown up in Shanghai, where his father was chief of police, also believed it was important to know about foreign affairs, history, poetry, great music, literature.

"He had a bound version of Victor Hugo that he would sometimes take when we went to church on Sunday," Larry recalls, "and if he was a little bored, he'd read it."

It's not just the O'Tooles. It's Elizabeth O'Toole's family, too -- the Ryans. A case in point: Laurence Ryan, her father, a thoroughbred horse breeder from Cratloe in County Clare who lived to be 101.

Recalls Larry: "We were brought up listening to his stories, which were more parables than stories, and always showed a great respect for people who stood up for their own beliefs, and for truth and justice. So we were imbued with that from the beginning.

"He had very little patience with spineless behavior, and he was always quick to point it out when he saw it."

As for Margot O'Toole, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about her, at least on the face of it, in a city like Boston, with its huge biomedical community and Celtic ties. She is 38, a married mother and an immunologist with an undergraduate degree from Brandeis and a doctorate from Tufts. She lives in an aluminium-sided house in Newton, with a Plymouth Reliant in the driveway, children's crayon drawings on the ice box and a shaggy Irish water spaniel named Connor.

"Apart from the fact that it was clear the paper should be corrected," she says, "I had just wasted a year trying to do these experiments, and I knew there would be people following in my shoes, and I knew that I wanted to warn them -- 'Don't waste your time and your funding trying to extend these findings, because they don't exist.' "

When she tried to tell her superiors, she felt they were contemptuous of the scientific process, that they didn't care about the people who were trying to repeat the work. "They said, 'Let them do it and find out it's wrong.' Never mind how their lives are going to be wasted, and that they could have found out something that was actually true. It was extremely disillusioning."

But, on some fundamental level, she saw it as a challenge.

"If you ask me what it is, particularly, that Margot has, it's the ability to respond," says her mother. "If the challenge comes to you, you must respond. It's the ability to face your problem with a very level gaze. You look out there and you see it, and that's what you have to deal with. You concentrate and take it up. In life, you don't really have the option to walk away from lots of things. But that was the only option they left her at MIT -- to walk away from it.

"She thought the world of science. And she thought that because they were top-flight scientists they were going to be top-flight people. And the fact was, they were way less than what they should have been."

In fact, an impressive array of the nation's distinguished scientists scorned her, ridiculed her, treated her as an outcast and, it sometimes seemed, when they found they could not intimidate her, tried to crush her.

Margot O'Toole lost her job. She lost her house after she and her husband could no longer afford the mortgage payments. They moved in with her mother.

She considered switching to science writing or editing, but never had an interview. "People look suspicious when they're trying to switch fields and they're unemployed," she says.

O'Toole thought about law school but couldn't afford the tuition. Finally, she took a job answering telephones at her brother Larry's moving company, Gentle Giant in Somerville.

Throughout her ordeal, Margot O'Toole had only a few public supporters, among them Dr. Linus Pauling; Dr. Walter Gilbert, a Nobel laureate at Harvard; Dr. John Edsall, a biochemistry professor emeritus at Harvard; and Lorraine Roth, a former research worker from Brookline.

Most others felt they had to remain silent, for in an academic world where one's contacts and standing make a difference, where untenured means unprotected and where the scramble for government funding is desperate, taint by association could be ruinous.

"That's one of the things that struck me throughout all of this," reflects Larry. "Margot could see really no big deal in telling the truth. So she was absolutely stunned when nobody else wanted to participate in the truth."

Her family egged her on. They said that, no matter what, she'd have to see the matter through to the end.

"We were prepared to back her through anything," says Larry. "I can remember saying to her at one point, when she was saying, as usual, that the whole thing was going nowhere, and I said, 'So what? You'll always know that you did the right thing. And so will we.' "

Despite their encouragement, Margot O'Toole at one point became so discouraged that she might have left the whole mess alone had it not been for two federal investigators -- Walter Stewart and Ned Feder -- who took up her cause.

The rest is history.

Last April, O'Toole was hired to do part-time research into the immunology of breast cancer, thanks in part to Dr. Mark Ptashne, a Harvard biochemistry and molecular biology professor who read about her plight, called her up and decided she was a "remarkably bright individual" and recommended her to the Genetics Institute in Cambridge, which he had founded and where he still serves on the board of directors.

The Genetics Institute wasn't bothered by the controversy that surrounded O'Toole, and in September her job there became permanent.

And last week, six years after O'Toole first told the truth about the faked data, she was finally vindicated. A preliminary National Institutes of Health report concluded that O'Toole had been right all along and praised her actions as "heroic" in many respects.

"She deserves the approbation and gratitude of the scientific community," the report stated, "for her courage and her dedication to the belief that truth in science matters."

So far, none of the scientists who opposed her during her long ordeal have apologized. "I just think that it'll be sort of a long-term process for people to come to terms with what happened here, and figure out what to do about it," she says.

Meanwhile, behind the limelight, Margot O'Toole's life is a balancing act between children (three of them, from infancy to age 9), husband (also a scientist) and the job. It is difficult to catch her in person, and also hard to get her on the phone; early-morning calls are punctuated with the sounds of O'Toole eating her breakfast (she apologizes) or by offstage whispers to a child ("What is it, love?" "No -- you can't go out and ride your racer- pacer yet").

She can't put a price tag on four years of lost research. Still, she says: ''It was worth it to me, I think.

"It has made me find strength in myself that I didn't know was there. Obviously, they didn't know it, either. And it's made me appreciate my own brain, my own independence, and from that point of view, it's given me a fundamental confidence."

And she is undoubtedly passing along her high values to her children.

"I don't know if you'd call them 'high standards,' " says Margot O'Toole, ''but it's a very simple concept. You figure out what's right and wrong for yourself. It's sad if people consider them high standards. They should be ordinary standards."

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 19:48:21 EDT 2000