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December 26, 1993
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I have found the world kinder than I expected," Samuel Johnson remarked, "but less just." Of late, the world has not been particularly kind or just to Robert C. Gallo, a virologist at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.
For years, Gallo has been under a thick cloud of suspicion that he stole from French scientists the credit for discovering the AIDS virus. The suspicion has proved groundless.
As a Government appeals board concluded last month: "One might anticipate that from all this evidence, after all the sound and fury, there would be at least a residue of palpable wrongdoing. That is not the case."
Not even a residue?
No, and in truth, Gallo's achievement was greater than has been generally understood, since it far exceeded the mere co-discovery of the AIDS virus with which he is usually credited. Before AIDS was even heard of, he had begun developing the basic techniques for studying T-cells, a then-obscure component of the immune system, and had helped discover two new viruses that prey on them, causing rare diseases.
If fortune favors the prepared mind, as history of science textbooks like to say, Gallo was eminently ready to find the human immunodeficiency virus. Yethe helped other laboratories master the T-cell techniques he had developed, training a technician and supplying biological materials to the laboratory of Luc Montagnier at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
In May 1983, Montagnier's group first described a new virus from an AIDS patient but was unable to prove it was the causative agent.
A few months later, Gallo's laboratory had made several significant strides. He isolated his own samples of the new virus from patients. He found out how to grow the evanescent virus in bulk. He put beyond reasonable dispute that the new virus was the cause of AIDS. And on top of that, he devised a highly effective test for detecting the virus in blood.
At that time, in mid-1984, the AIDS virus was fast seeping into blood banks around the world. From the moment Gallo's blood test was instituted, lives began to be saved. Without him, others might have taken a considerable time to develop a blood test and thousands more lives would surely have been lost.
After 12 grim years, Gallo's blood test is still the only weapon of real value that scientists have yet managed to devise against this baffling disease. But far from basking in gratitude, Gallo has been subjected to years of humiliation. What prompted this cruel twist of fate?
IN BRIEF, A SCIENTIFIC PUZZLE LED TO A newspaper attack that triggered an insatiable Government inquiry. The puzzle was that the version of the AIDS virus Gallo used for his blood test turned out to have almost the same genetic sequence as Montagnier's virus. But the AIDS virus mutates so rapidly that any two versions so similar must be related. Did Montagnier's patient infect Gallo's patient? No, but in 1983 Montagnier had twice sent samples of his virus to Gallo.
One explanation was that the French virus had gotten loose in Gallo's lab and overgrown his own virus cultures. Cross-contamination is a common problem in virus labs, yet Gallo had insisted the two viruses behaved differently.
The other possibility was that Gallo had used the French virus for his experiments without isolating his own, a physical and intellectual theft. Given Gallo's competitive nature and his well-known thirst for recognition, the second possibility loomed large in people's minds.
An unusual piece of reporting gave the suspicion shape. John Crewdson, a Chicago Tribune reporter who won a Pulitzer prize while with The New York Times, spent 20 months investigating Gallo's work. His 50,000-word article of Nov. 19, 1989, described several cases in which colleagues and others believed Gallo had hogged credit for joint discoveries. Yet the article, despite its author's perseverance, had several defects.
It was relentlessly hostile to Gallo, interpreting one complex event after another to his discredit. It gave little weight to the possibility that Gallo's fierce competitiveness might have had something to do with the brisk pace of discovery. And despite every paragraph's insinuation that Gallo was capable of stealing the French virus, it failed to offer proof he had done so.
Nonetheless, the Crewdson article prompted an inquiry by a Government office now known as the Office of Research Integrity. Staffed mostly by scientists, the office's goal was to find the smoking gun Crewdson had so strongly implied was present. But in 1991 Gallo and Montagnier solved the festering mystery. The two scientists' original viruses were indeed different strains, as Gallo had said all along. But at some early stage a third and more vigorous virus had overgrown first Montagnier's cultures and, via the second of the samples he sent, those in Gallo's laboratory too. It was this third virus that explained the similar sequences. The only evidence for assuming Gallo had appropriated the French virus promptly evaporated.
But instead of dropping the case, O.R.I. plodded on. It claimed there were misstatements in Gallo's discovery papers, particularly in sections written by his colleague Mikulas Popovic, a Czech virologist. It accused Gallo and Popovic of "scientific misconduct," even while conceding the alleged misstatement was minor and "does not invalidate" the research.
When the O.R.I. case at last came before people familiar with the concept of due process, the Government's appeals board treated the office's work as something it must have trodden in. What O.R.I. claimed were false statements by Popovic, the appeals board judged as mere ambiguities caused by Popovic's imperfect English and not false at all when Popovic's intended meaning was accepted.
With the charge against Popovic pulverized, O.R.I. withdrew its case against Gallo, presumably foreseeing it would meet with equal contempt and whining that the appeals board had set a higher standard. In fact, it was O.R.I. that had proposed a lower one, claiming it only needed to prove a statement false to establish scientific misconduct, regardless of intent. Sorry, said the appeals board, the regulation defining scientific misconduct doesn't say "false." It says "falsification," which requires proving an intent to deceive.
From Crewdson's article to O.R.I.'s ignominious collapse took four years -- four years in which Gallo was diverted from fighting AIDS to fighting the ill-will and narrow vision of various accusers. "These were the most painful years and horrible years of my life," Gallo now says. "There is no doubt I lost significant time, and I feel obsessed to make up for it."
In Gallo's rush for the AIDS virus, he bruised many competitors. His critics mistook his sharp elbows for itchy fingers. They were far too slow to correct their misjudgment of the one scientific hero who has yet emerged in the fight against AIDS.