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No campaign to strip Baltimore of his Nobel

Sir

In his review of Ahead of the Curve, Shane Crotty's biography of David Baltimore (Nature 410; 746; 2001), Robert Bazell perpetuates a misunderstanding of my role in the 'Baltimore case' when he writes that I “campaigned to have Baltimore's Nobel prize rescinded and to have him expelled from the National Academy of Sciences”. The assertion that I led a campaign to destroy Baltimore is false. Its origin may lie in the reappearance at that time of the long-discredited rumour that David knew of Howard Temin's discovery of avian reverse transcriptase before he isolated its murine equivalent — I had inappropriately repeated what turned out to be an unfounded story.

Earlier, before the Dingell congressional hearings under which David was investigated for his support of a colleague accused of scientific fraud, I had in fact tried to defuse the situation, first by holding a small meeting on scientific integrity at our Banbury Center to try to review what was going on. Although invited, David declined to come, but his close associates did. Second, I went to the offices of Congressman Norman Lent, Long Island's Republican counterpart to John Dingell, to tell him that the controversy involved not fraud but possible mistakes of scientific judgment, and as such it should not merit the attention of a congressional committee.

I have only the highest respect for Baltimore as a scientist and leader of science, but his intransigence at the time made many of us worry that the affair was harming not only himself but US science as well. I in no way feel apologetic for not supporting behaviour that I feel is antithetical to the scientific tradition in which I was raised. The Harvard professors who saw the need to publicly question David's behaviour only reluctantly joined the fray. In reporting their and my behaviour as “horrid”, Bazell does us a great injustice. Under no circumstances could John Edsall or Paul Doty, say, be accused of jealousy of a peer's meteoric career. I and the Harvard professors were deeply bothered by what seemed to us actions not appropriate for an individual of such talents. I totally concurred in my former colleagues' forthright wish for justice to prevail.

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Watson, J. No campaign to strip Baltimore of his Nobel. Nature 411, 131–132 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35075635

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