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Scientists seek recognition and reward


An unexpected co-author
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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I should say there was an interesting anecdote that occurred during this period of mycoplasma work that my boss Hilary Koprowksi came into my lab one day. He had learned about my working with mycoplasmas and, of course, it was known that mycoplasmas contaminated cell cultures and he was worried that I would spread it all over the institute or spread it in my lab, but I knew enough about these organisms to take the proper precautions. In any case, he came into my lab and he said, 'Len', he said, 'I didn't hire you to work on the mycoplasmas. I hired you to work on cell cultures, to provide cell cultures to the institute, make media and all the rest of it and I would appreciate it very much if you stopped your work, whatever work you're doing on these organisms.' Well, I didn't. I disobeyed him.

By this time, or I should say a few weeks later, we had all the information we needed to write a paper and to not only suggest but almost hint that we had proven the cause of primary atypical pneumonia and, in fact, I think we went so far as to say that in a paper. So Bob called me one day and said, 'Len, I'm going to make a first draft of the paper.' I said, 'Great.' I said, 'Send me the first draft. I'll massage it for you and then we'll go from there.' A few days later, he calls me again. He says, 'Len, I've got a problem.' 'What's your problem?' 'While working on the paper, Mike Barile came to my office and I told him I'm working on a paper and Mike said: oh, am I a co-author on the paper?' And Bob was puzzled because he knew that Mike's contribution bordered on the trivial, if not outright trivial, as I explained what he did. And Bob, I don't know how seriously Bob took Mike's suggestion, but it later turned out that because the importance of this discovery reached higher levels by word of mouth at this time, the director of Mike Barile's institute – I don't recall his institute, it was separate from that of Bob's – got wind of this. And in concert with the director of Bob Chanock's institute, his name was Bob Huebner, they, for reasons of course unknown to me, decided that Mike Barile will be on the paper. There was some power play going on at that level. And it was decided that Mike should go on the paper.

Well, that was bothersome to me because if Bob Chanock and I were co-authors and he could be senior author, fine by me, it would be apparent to anyone reading that paper who the mycoplasma expert was and who the Eaton agent expert was. It didn't have to be mentioned. But with Mike on the paper, it would be questionable who did the key concept of realising the relationship between the Eaton agent and the cause of disease, which I later named 'mycoplasma pneumoniae', for obvious reasons. And who did that work if Mike's name is on the paper? Well, I then made a fatal mistake. It later turned out to be fatal and I'm still struggling with it, by the way, and that is I agreed because of my heavy involvement with the other work that I described, I just couldn't spend the time to sort that out and I agreed to have Mike on the paper. Bob had said, 'Well, he's having trouble with his boss who wants him on the paper.' And I said, 'But Bob, what he did was trivial.' He said, 'I know it was trivial.' I said, 'We'll give him an acknowledgement in the paper. That's fine, but to be a co-author, it's going to be a problem for me, not for you, but for me.' He understood that and I was unsuccessful.

The compromise was that in the body of the paper, it would be stated who isolated the organism and if you read the original paper, you'll see my initials attached to that statement. But, of course, people don't read the entire paper. They read the title, they read the authors, then they read a summary of it. So very few people in the long run, as I learnt to my consternation in subsequent years, didn't realise the aspect of my contribution to that paper, which in my judgement was fairly significant. And I've been suffering from that burden for the past 50 years.

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: Hilary Koprowski, Robert Chanock, Michael Barile

Duration: 5 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2011

Date story went live: 08 August 2012