Author: By Peter G. Gosselin, Globe Staff

Date: 12/20/1993 Page: 67
Section: LIVING

The Whistle-Blower, the Accused, and the Nobel Laureate
By Judy Sarasohn
St. Martin's, 273 pp., $22.95

This is the story of what happened in one of the hundreds of university laboratories that dot Cambridge and Boston; one of those places where the
lights burn late as some of the nation's best minds strain toward an audacious goal -- to uncover a hidden mechanism of life and be acclaimed for it. It is a tale, as author Judy Sarasohn clearly understands, that turns the civics-book account of science on its head; that reveals the human passion, pettiness and tragedy behind the cool surface of biomedical research. For all that, it is very tough going for the uninitiated.

The reason is simple. The "David Baltimore affair," which the book recounts, has stirred a bitterness that will not die and has produced partisans who attack any account that differs from their own (including, as likely as not, this review; defenders of Baltimore, the Nobel laureate in the book's subtitle and a central character in the event, have accused both the reviewer and The Boston Globe of favoring the scientist's critics).

In such circumstances, Sarasohn has stuck closely -- sometimes excruciatingly so -- to the record. What readers get is a largely evenhanded account of every zig and zag in a dispute that, incredibly, has dragged on over eight years, through a half-dozen investigations, a congressional inquiry and a criminal probe. What they desperately need, but generally do not get, are any signposts about where -- other than to a bad end -- the story is headed, and what it might mean to the larger world.

The outlines of the story are depressingly familiar, especially to Globe readers. In the spring of 1986, Baltimore, already a Nobelist and a senior scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Thereza Imanishi-Kari, another MIT scientist who is now at Tufts; and others published a scientific paper in which they claimed they had shown that the immune systems of one set of experimental mice "mimic" those of a second when genetic material from the second is injected in the first. The results, if they could be reproduced, seemed to hold out the promise of someday being able to steer people's immune systems to go after particular illnesses.

The only problem was that Imanishi-Kari's postdoctoral assistant, Margot O'Toole, could not reproduce key findings despite repeatedly trying, and then stumbled upon scientific notes of her superior that seemed to suggest either that Imanishi-Kari had not performed important experiments, or that she had performed them but had not obtained results that supported the claims in the paper.

Although O'Toole complained, the fireworks didn't really start until word of the dispute reached Walter Stewart and Ned Feder, a pair of researchers at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., who were already infuriating scientists by investigating allegations of research misconduct.

By the time the pair had finished, all of the following had happened: Rep. John D. Dingell, the tough-guy lawmaker from Michigan, had taken up the case to prove that scientists were not properly policing themselves and thus were misusing federal research funds; most of the scientific community had arisen in howling protest over what it considered Dingell's McCarthyist tactics; the Secret Service had been hauled into the case and found evidence that strongly suggested that documents, which Imanishi-Kari insisted rebutted O'Toole's criticisms, were forged, and Baltimore, who had left MIT for the presidency of Rockefeller University in New York, had been forced to resign.

To Sarasohn's credit, she does not simplify the frighteningly complex story by recourse to stick-figure good guys and villains. She hints at O'Toole's moral rigidity and describes Stewart's sometimes inflated view of the importance of scientific fraud. (He once horrified a largely Jewish audience of scientists by suggesting that the issue raised some of the same moral dilemmas as the Nazi Holocaust.)

Also to her credit, Sarasohn takes a stand on the central question of whether Imanishi-Kari did the experiments she said she did, and whether they supported the paper's claims. Despite what is certain to be a firestorm of criticism by the Tufts scientist's defenders, the author writes that she found the Secret Service evidence of forgery and an NIH draft report sharply critical of Imanishi-Kari "more persuasive" than friends' exculpatory rationalizations.

The trouble is that that cautious judgment appears on page 267 of a 273- page book, and is the first time the reader gets any really clear signal about who is to be believed and who isn't. In the end, Judy Sarasohn has probably written the best book that can be done on the subject for now, but not the final word. Who has that will not be known for years.

Last modified: Wed Sep 20 19:51:10 EDT 2000