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Branded a thief and denied a defense


Shafted by a bean-counter
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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So when Frederickson was driving me to the NIH, I said, 'Please send to me your most intelligent and brilliant attorney, when you take over at NIH, to address this question.' 'Okay', he said.

The more I learnt about the job, the more I feared that it would not be of great interest to me, and one of the reasons was attributable to my friendship with Frank Rausher, the director of the National Cancer Institute. Frank had five children, as I did, and he said, 'Len, if you have five children, the salary as director of the NIA is going to be a problem, because it will not suffice to send your five children to university.' So that was a serious consideration because at Stanford, I had this... we as faculty members had this terrific perk, as we say, or advantage of a reciprocal relationship between Stanford and many American major universities, where the children of faculty members of one of these universities could go to the other university in this... in this informal system without payment of tuition fees. And so people from Yale could go to Stanford, people from Stanford could go to Yale, and that kind of... all for nothing or for minimal cost. And that was a significant sum of money, if you do the mathematics, for five children. So that was one consideration. There were other considerations that were... don't come immediately to mind, but they were important ones.

At about this time, there... I was sent a person, as I requested, to look into the matter that I have just described: who owns WI-38 and what is the disposition of these funds? The person that arrived in my laboratory, to my astonishment, was an accountant, a man who clearly had no biological background and no legal background, but he was, as we say in American English vernacular, a bean counter. And this gentleman had two assistants, and they wanted to know how their... particularly... they weren't interested in the question of title, they were interested in the question of the funds that I had put aside in a separate bank account, never touched, and they pursued that matter. They wanted all of the documents. And I told my assistants... I had a secretary and an administrative assistant at the time, I think I had two secretaries, and they had a separate office. I went in there with him, and he heard me tell them, 'Everything in this office is open to this gentleman, he has access to everything in any file, in any folder that I... that is found in this room or any other room under my control.' And they... he went to work.

After several weeks, I began to realise there was something fishy going on, because he came back several times, he seemed to be very serious, and the questions that he was asking me seemed a bit strange, until I finally realised that he was pursuing the question of my having... and I'll put it in a... in very basic terms to ignore the more elaborate description of what he said, but fundamentally he was about to accuse me of stealing government property because he assumed that WI-38 belonged to the government since it was distributed under contract. It was not distributed under contract to the people who paid for the costs of mailing and preparation. The contract never covered those people, which was why that... I established that in the first place. He interpreted that as having stolen WI-38, and even more fundamentally, his assumption that WI-38 belonged to the federal government, which was never ever established. WI-38 was never established under a government grant or contract. I established those... first of all, I made the discovery and established WI-38 without a grant and without a contract. The materials were bootlegged from overhead funds that the Wistar Institute had and that were used to fund my laboratory, whose purpose was to supply cell cultures to researchers within the Wistar Institute.

Leonard Hayflick (b. 1928), the recipient of several research prizes and awards, including the 1991 Sandoz Prize for Gerontological Research, is known for his research in cell biology, virus vaccine development, and mycoplasmology. He also has studied the ageing process for more than thirty years. Hayflick is known for discovering that human cells divide for a limited number of times in vitro (refuting the contention by Alexis Carrel that normal body cells are immortal), which is known as the Hayflick limit, as well as developing the first normal human diploid cell strains for studies on human ageing and for research use throughout the world. He also made the first oral polio vaccine produced in a continuously propogated cell strain - work which contributed to significant virus vaccine development.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Ageing, Stanford, Donald Fredrickson, Frank Rauscher

Duration: 5 minutes, 31 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2013

Date story went live: 14 June 2013