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Having WI-38 confiscated by the government


Branded a thief and denied a defense
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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So here was this basic assumption made by this man who assumed that the government must own these cells. That was clearly not established, for the reasons that I gave earlier.

As a matter of fact, there are at least four stakeholders in a cell population. If it's human, one of stakeholders is the... is the person or the estate from which the cells came. The second stakeholder are the scientists who gave value to those cells, without which the cells would have no value. The third stakeholder is possibly the institution in which the research was done. And, finally, the fourth stakeholder should be the organisation or individual who funded the research. And this was my belief and my concern, that those stakeholders somehow should be satisfied. The investigation continued – it turned out to be an investigation – and this accountant did reach that conclusion, that I had stolen government property, to put it bluntly, although that was not the way it was written in his final report.

His final report, as it was made, made him go to the dean of the school of medicine at Stanford. I was in the department of medical microbiology. And I can only guess what this accountant told the dean. It probably went something along the lines, 'Do you know you have a thief over there in the Department of Medical Microbiology?', because the dean called me into his office, and it was a confrontational meeting that I never expected. I expected when he called me to have an opportunity to explain to him exactly what I've explained in the past few minutes in this... in this interview. But that didn't happen. He was in his office with his lawyer, which was a surprise to me. When I was at previous universities, lawyers were never part of the academic administration. Of course, that's completely changed today, and at that time it was just beginning to happen. And the first thing that I was told was, after they said that they had spoken to this accountant, that I should retain a lawyer. So it immediately made it a confrontational discussion, where I was now needing, according to them, to be assisted by an attorney, which never entered my mind. I thought we would be having a collegial conversation about the title to WI-38, the question of the disposition of the funds, because I clearly was not maintaining... maintaining that they belonged entirely to me. But that never happened, it was simply a confrontational meeting that didn't last very long, and I left and hired an attorney.

The report that this gentleman wrote was then leaked to the press, and one of the people who received the leak was a writer for Science magazine, Nicholas Wade by name. Nicholas Wade came out to California to interview me in the presence of my attorneys and essentially believed what the dean had been told by the... by the accountant and indeed published that in three or four pages in Science magazine, who then were very reluctant to print my reply, in addition to which the accountant did not give me an opportunity to reply before it was leaked to the press. So the press, the information that was published, was essentially that I had been doing illegal things, published in Science by Wade, the front page of The New York Times Sunday edition, and in many other publications, which essentially torpedoed my career immediately because people believed what they read and had never read my side of the story, which was quite a shock to me, because many of the scientists who began to avoid me are trained to look at data and to be precise in what they believe. But that never happened with an enormous number of my alleged colleagues. It was... however, there were many colleagues who immediately jumped to my assistance. It was an immediate determination of who was friendly and who was not friendly, an experience that very few people have when the determination is made within a matter of days. So from that standpoint, it was quite useful, quite interesting. People came to my defence who I never expected to, people did not offer any help and avoided me who I never expected to, so it was quite an interesting sociological experience.

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: Stanford, Department of Medical Microbiology, Science Magazine, Nicolas Wade

Duration: 6 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2013

Date story went live: 14 June 2013