The Baltimore Case

Hal Hinson reviews 'The Baltimore Case' by Daniel J. Kevles

Published September 11, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In May 1996, Daniel J. Kevles published an extensive article in the New Yorker about Nobel Laureate David Baltimore and a fraud charge brought against him and a colleague by a whistle-blowing scientist at M.I.T. The case against Baltimore, which became one of the more alluring scientific controversies in recent memory, began in 1986 and would stretch out for over a decade. Kevles has now expanded his article into an exhaustive (and exhausting) book. "The Baltimore Case" brings the reader up to date with the final court rulings that ultimately exonerated Baltimore and the other major players, and it provides an intelligent articulation of the issues at play. It's a gripping story that might have made for a gripping narrative, but with its endless stretches of legalese and scientific minutiae, "The Baltimore Case" simply isn't that book.

While Baltimore is ostensibly the star of this rigorously reported narrative, he is far from being its primary player. That distinction goes to Thereza Imanishi-Kari, a biomedical scientist whose research into how the body custom-tailors antibodies to fend off disease is at the center of the controversy. During his tenure at M.I.T., Baltimore collaborated with Imanishi-Kari on a series of experiments designed to illuminate this mysterious process. The fruit of these collaborative labors was a paper co-authored by Imanishi-Kari, Baltimore and four other M.I.T. researchers and published in the spring of 1986 in the journal Cell.

The trouble began when Imanishi-Kari offered a postdoctoral fellowship to Margot O'Toole, a Tufts University School of Medicine graduate. For several months, O'Toole tried to duplicate the experiments in the Cell article. When she couldn't, she blew the whistle. Kevles hints that O'Toole might have been satisfied with a simple correction. But when none was forthcoming, the situation spun wildly out of control. Years of federal investigations ensued, as well as congressional hearings led by a rabid Democratic representative from Michigan named John Dingell, who felt that scientists had been getting a free ride on taxpayer money.

By the time Dingell was through with him, Baltimore was forced to resign his position as president of Rockefeller University. Imanishi-Kari lost her tenure-track position at Tufts and was banned from seeking grants from the National Institutes of Health for a decade. "What Dingell carried out was a public lynching," says one academic, and Kevles seems to agree with that assessment. Baltimore was found guilty in the court of public opinion, but evidence that he had committed fraud was shaky from the beginning. Indeed, an appeals panel later found his research "as a whole rife with errors of all sorts" but not fraud or fabrication.

No one emerged from this contretemps unscathed, but all have since moved on with their lives. After his exoneration, Baltimore was named president of the California Institute of Technology, and he is in charge of the AIDS vaccine advisory panel for the NIH. Imanishi-Kari's reputation would also be rejuvenated, although not as completely. Tufts promoted her to associate professor, and she ultimately received an NIH grant. (O'Toole's whistle-blowing would also be rewarded with numerous citations and awards -- among them Humanist of the Year by the Ethical Society of Boston, and the Ethics Award from the American Institute of Chemists.)

With heavyweights like these facing off in such a high-stakes game, Kevles had everything he needed for a real-life potboiler. Unfortunately, the author, an acclaimed scientific historian, is unable to create any narrative momentum or give his characters a human face. His book has gravity, significance and momentous human conflict. What it lacks is the one quality needed to bring everything together -- an engaging style. It is, in effect, a kind of contradiction -- a good book that is something short of being a good read.

By Hal Hinson

A former film critic for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson reviews books and movies from his home in West Hollywood.

MORE FROM Hal Hinson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------