The Baltimore Case

(This column was first published in the March 30 Buffalo News.)

   April Fool's Day approaches and brings with it my annual visit to the fringes of science.

   In past years I have written about hoaxes, about psychics' predictions, about an anthropologist led astray and about an historic obsession with tulips. In all of those columns I wrote as a critical outsider, judgmental in speaking about fakes and stupidity and the eager gullibility of so many people -- the true basis for April Foolishness.

   This year I describe an episode that cuts closer to the bone for I was among those who were conned. Perhaps you were as well.

   Many of you who follow science news will recall the series of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s that came to be known as The Baltimore Case. Some of the headlines of the time will remind you of the story: "US Finds Fraud in Research at MIT," "Nobelist Entangled in Fraud Case Resigns as Head of Rockefeller U." and "Hero in Exposing Science Hoax Paid Dearly."

   The facts, as presented not just in major newspapers and magazines but also in prestigious journals like Science and Nature, seemed straightforward. A young scientist, Margot O'Toole, exposed falsified data in an MIT lab, discrediting not only the work of the lab director, Thereza Iminishi-Kari, but also her senior co-author, David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize winner. A U. S. Secret Service investigation of the whistle-blower's claims supported O'Toole and was brought to public attention by Congressman John Dingell's House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. As a result a major published paper had to be withdrawn, its authors compromised. And shortly after his 1990 appointment as president of Rockefeller University Baltimore was forced to resign.

   Oh, how the mighty are fallen! It was a wonderfully appealing case of this young woman, against all odds, exposing serious flaws in the scientific enterprise. O'Toole lost her MIT job in the process -- how else do we treat whistle-blowers? -- but she received the Humanist of the Year Award from the Ethical Society of Boston and the Ethics Award of the American Institute of Chemists and is now a researcher at the Genetics Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

   That is how I believed the story ended. As is too often the case, the final outcome did not make headlines.

   Fortunately, historian Daniel J. Kevles has told the entire story in "The Baltimore Case: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character" published by W. W. Norton. Although the science -- an experiment in immunology -- presents a serious obstacle to the reader, the story this book tells is compelling and Kevles deserves the rich praise he has received.

   His well documented conclusions are: the research team did not have a fair trial; they were convicted in the court of public opinion and nowhere else; and Baltimore was correct in defending his collaborator. A series of independent academic committees, including one carefully conducted at the National Institutes of Health despite great pressures on Director Bernadine Healy, discharged O'Toole's attacks, which had escalated from one forum to the next as she gained national recognition. O'Toole had been neither fired nor mistreated. The Secret Service and the House Subcommittee staff acted like Keystone Cops. And later experiments validated the original study results.

   The experience was a difficult one for all involved but David Baltimore was surely vindicated by his 1997 appointment as president of the California Institute of Technology.

   There are important messages here: the media -- even the scientific media -- can sometimes offer poor guidance and the little guy is not always in the right. Also that old adage, "There's no fool like an old fool," applies to me as well. -- Gerry Rising