David Baltimore won the Nobel Prize for medicine at the age of 37. A leading researcher and respected public figure, in 1990 he was made president of Rockefeller University. Less that 18 months later, he resigned amid allegations of fraud. Daniel Kevles' investigation of what became known as The Baltimore Case reveals a witch-hunt in which Baltimore and Thereza Imanishi-Kari, former colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were unjustly accused and vilified in the name of scientific integrity and public trust. While never accused of wrong doing, Baltimore staunchly defended the work and integrity of Imanish-Kari when her findings came under attack from a post-doctoral fellow, Margot O'Toole, whom Imanishi-Kari had hired to work in her laboratory. Kevles explanation of why he thought Imanishi-Kari to be innocent appeared in an article in "The New Yorker" in May 1996. In June of that year she was finally exonerated. Kevles also raises broader questions of about the way science works and about the complex discord between the public's right to accountability and the scientist's need for autonomy in the laboratory.
In a perfect world, science wouldn't be done by human beings, since despite our best efforts, we aren't truly objective about anything. When personality and emotion inevitably get mixed up with science, sparks can fly. The most notorious such conflagration in recent times was The Baltimore Case, a decade-long dispute between supposedly objective scientists that resulted in excruciating trials, sensational headlines, and damaged careers and lives. Historian Daniel Kevles tells the story of the accusations of fraud leveled by Margot O'Toole toward her colleagues, Thereza Imanishi-Kari and Nobel Prize-winner David Baltimore. Kevles first explains the controversial experimental results and the paper published outlining them. O'Toole was unable to reproduce the results of Imanishi-Kari and accused her of falsifying data, also implicating the high-profile Baltimore, coauthor of the original paper. In the following years, all participants in the investigation were subjected to dehumanizing, humiliating scrutiny--including a congressional inquiry not unlike a mini-witch-hunt--and nasty comments gleefully reported by a media eager for a big scientific scandal. Kevles comes down on the side of the self-admittedly sloppy Imanishi-Kari (who was officially exonerated in 1996) and Baltimore, painting O'Toole as a well-motivated but overenthusiastic watchdog manipulated by embarrassingly eager investigators. This book is a valuable lesson in how uneasily humanity and science share the laboratory. Even our best and brightest can be brought low by jealousy, carelessness, and deception. --Therese Littleton
"The Baltimore Case" was shortlisted for the 1998 Los Angeles Times Book Award in Science/Technology.
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