Logo IMG


Call Him Ishmael

Nathaniel Comfort

Science Fictions: A Scientific Mystery, a Massive Cover-up, and the Dark Legacy of Robert Gallo. John Crewdson. xviii + 670 pp. Little, Brown, 2002. $27.95

Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler . . .Click to Enlarge Image

I am expecting a telephone call from Bob Gallo any minute. Gallo, now at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, was from 1972 to 1995 head of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute, in Bethesda, Maryland. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, recipient of the National Medal of Science, winner of the coveted Lasker prize in medicine—by any measure a distinguished and brilliant scientist. He is also a man of seemingly boundless energy. During the 1980s and 1990s, he supervised a huge research group—some 50 or more scientists and technicians—engaged in one of the most competitive, fast-paced areas of biomedicine. He jetted the globe attending scientific meetings. He battled scientists from the Institut Pasteur, in Paris, over priority in the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus, the pathogenic agent in AIDS. When the dispute led to allegations of scientific misconduct, Gallo scrapped with Congress, the Office of Scientific Integrity and a curse of lawyers. His extensive writings include a history of the discovery of HIV and a memoir. And somehow, amid all that, he manages to find the time to browbeat anyone, from members of Congress to the lowliest science writer, either in person or by telephone, who criticizes him or his research. How does he do it?

Gallo is John Crewdson's great white whale. Crewdson, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has conducted interviews, pored over laboratory notes and correspondence, combed government documents, read published accounts and pieced together a scathing portrait of the Gallo affair, one of the most high-profile scandals in the history of recent science. Although Science Fictions is billed as a "scientific mystery," there's never a doubt whodunit. Along the way, Crewdson accuses him of theft, fraud, attempted blackmail, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony—nearly everything but sloth. Such character assassination is great sport, but it undermines the seriousness and rigor of Crewdson's investigation.

In 1989, Crewdson published a 16-page, 55,000-word article in the Tribune that laid out the facts of the Gallo case up to that point. The first AIDS patients began to appear in Los Angeles hospitals in 1979. In early 1983, scientists in the laboratory of Luc Montagnier, a minor figure at the once-glorious Institut Pasteur, identified and isolated a human retrovirus from a French AIDS patient. They named the virus lymphoid adenopathy virus (LAV). Meanwhile, Gallo, in Bethesda, had his own candidate AIDS virus, a human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV). He requested from Montagnier a sample of LAV to study and compare with his HTLV. Weeks later, Gallo announced that he had found the cause of AIDS: a new, third type of leukemia virus, HTLV-3. Montagnier's group then wrote up their results, claiming LAV as the, or a, cause of AIDS. Receiving a preprint of the paper, Gallo realized that they had forgotten to include an abstract, without which it could not be published. He dashed one off as a courtesy and read it long-distance to Montagnier, who approved it, even though it referred to the French virus as an HTLV. The two papers appeared back-to-back in Science. Because scientists often read only the abstracts and figures of papers, the impression was of Gallo's generosity in sharing the credit with the French lab. Gallo, who had a big reputation, many connections and a knack for finding spotlights to stand in, emerged as the discoverer of the AIDS virus.

Quickly, the French and the Americans each developed their own blood test, of a type known as an ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay). Before long, royalties for the Gallo test, licensed to Abbott Laboratories, topped half a million dollars per year. By the vagaries of international patent law, the French were squeezed out of the American market, even though their patent was filed just before the American one. The French, incensed, sued. They claimed that they had discovered the virus and developed the first, best test, and that they had been the first to patent that test. Further, they argued that Gallo's HTLV-3 (actually, one isolate known as 3B) was in fact LAV. They believed that, deliberately or not, the virus they had sent to Bethesda had been introduced into Gallo's cultures. The National Institutes of Health, Gallo's employer, stood by their man.

A settlement of sorts was reached in 1987, when Gallo and Montagnier sat down in a hotel room and wrote out a joint history of the discovery of the virus, which Gallo edited and which was published, apparently without peer review, in Nature. The French, having been given second billing, managed to become costars. Both patents were revised to include both teams, and Gallo and Montagnier officially became codiscoverers of HIV.

Science Fictions fills out the Tribune tale with much more evidence and then brings the reader forward to a conclusion, in 1995. This latter phase is a tortuous chronology of further investigations and lawsuits. The federal Office of Scientific Integrity and its successor, the Office of Research Integrity, become involved, Gallo and others get on and off the hook repeatedly, and the reader is treated to fresh examples of whitewashing, backstabbing and realpolitik. Gallo, by the way, is hardly the only unseemly character; most of the principals bumble, fib or snipe their way through the labyrinthine narrative.

The book's subtitle promises, in addition to a scientific mystery, a massive cover-up and a look at Gallo's "dark legacy." It's not clear what this legacy is; we can hardly blame Gallo for every subsequent incidence of scientific misconduct. What's left as a legacy? The deceit, scare tactics and creepy badgering of his critics that Crewdson details? I have firsthand experience of the badgering: A decade ago, as a novice science writer, I reviewed Virus Hunting, Gallo's memoir, for this magazine and noted in passing the author's less-than-objective stance. When the review appeared, my phone rang and I was subjected to 45 minutes of Gallo's humor. Narcissistic behavior, to be sure. But megalomaniacs are as common as rats in high-stakes biomedicine; even if Gallo were guilty of all Crewdson's charges he would remain in distinguished company. The surprise is to find a brilliant, eminent scientist who wears his purple cloak lightly.

As to the cover-up, Crewdson's most damning conclusion—that Gallo deliberately appropriated the Pasteur group's virus, peddled it as his own and doctored lab notebooks to hide the fact—will be persuasive to those who want to be persuaded. The evidence is like a dessert mousse: rich, but light. Crewdson documents with devastating thoroughness, however, the lesser charges: that Montagnier, not Gallo, discovered HIV; that LAV got into Gallo's cultures, and that Gallo's HTLV-3B was in fact LAV; and that Gallo was, for years, less than candid about what he knew and when. This is enough to make the Gallo affair a moral lesson to would-be scientific stars. Science Fictions should be required reading for postdocs and graduate students in biomedical research labs.

The discovery and isolation of HIV is one of the great success stories of scientific medicine. A mere six years elapsed from the first recognition of a novel, complex and deadly disease to the first blood test for its germ agent. The stakes of the race for the AIDS virus—fame, riches, a possible Nobel prize—instilled a sense of desperation in scientists already intensely competitive. What's remarkable is that science survives—even flourishes—despite obsessive, vindictive behavior. Science Fictions suggests a similar principle for journalism.

Is that the phone?

comments powered by Disqus

Connect With Us:


Sigma Xi/Amazon Smile (SciNight)

Subscribe to Free eNewsletters!

RSS Feed Subscription

Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.

Read Past Issues on JSTOR

JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.

The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.

View the full collection here.


Of Possible Interest

Book Review: On the Origin of Origin Stories

Book Review: O Pioneer

Book Excerpt: Cypherpunks Write Code

Subscribe to American Scientist