What Do We Do With the Science of Monstrous Men?

A problem from the arts makes its way into the lab.

The silhouette of a male scientist, looking menacing as he touches a board filled with equations.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

On May 18, W. French Anderson, known as the “father of gene therapy,” was released from prison on parole. Two weeks later, the 81-year-old scientist, pediatrician, and ex-con welcomed science writer Sharon Begley to his home in California for several days of interviews, which he gave with a GPS tracking device encircling his ankle. “This is what it has come to for a world-renowned scientist who was convicted of sexually molesting a colleague’s young daughter,” she writes at the top of her warm, weird, and at times outrageous profile for STAT last week.

There’s been a lot of talk, in recent months, about the legacies of monstrous men in the arts. We’ve reviewed the benefits and risks associated with their public shaming. We’ve re-appraised their prior work. We’ve wondered whether prodigious talents should be allowed to re-emerge and keep creating; and then we’ve theorized that our love of second chances enabled them from the start. Much less consideration has been given to the Monstrous Men in Science—the sundry research “pioneers” and “geniuses” who have turned out to be abusive bullies or much worse. Should the terms of their disgrace be any different? Should their misbehavior color how we think about their research? Or put another way: Can or should a man’s monstrosity be separated from his science?

Last week’s article on Anderson shows what can happen when you try. The 4,250-word piece begins by asserting its indifference to its subject’s character, in deference to his intellect: “We were interested in his views—as someone who’d once been near the pinnacle of medical science—of the research advances during his years behind bars, especially in gene therapy and genetics,” Begley writes, “ … But we made clear that we did not plan to re-investigate the criminal case, or provide a platform for his detailed arguments that he was wrongfully convicted.”

It’s true the piece doesn’t offer any new material about the case, and while it does provide a fair amount of background, it hardly dwells upon the horrifying details. Anderson, of course, has long insisted that he is innocent of any crime: He did not really nibble the toes of the 10-year-old girl to whom he’d made himself a mentor, as the girl had testified, or weigh and measure her naked in the bathroom, or rub and lick her genitals while she was reading comic books, or ejaculate against her underwear; he did not really tell her that this abuse was meant to help her self-esteem, as a tape-recording played for jurors showed; it was not actually a confession when he told her, also on that tape, “I did a horrible thing” and “It’s indefensible … it’s just evil;” and it’s not true that he’d abused another child whom he’d mentored in the 1980s, as that person told police in Maryland. (Charges were dropped in the Maryland case.) Rather, as Anderson has attempted to explain to anyone who’s listening, he was the target of a vast conspiracy involving corrupt local law enforcement, the “determined treachery” of his victim and her mother, and a case of military espionage. (For more about the case, and Anderson’s outlandish claims of innocence, see Jennifer Khan’s excellent 2007 feature for Wired.)

If STAT doesn’t mean to be a mouthpiece for this theory, though, it’s hard to fathom why the piece would bother with the fact that Anderson and his wife produced a “731-page binder filled with what they call evidence of a massive, financially motivated conspiracy to bring him down.” It isn’t clear why the piece should say that Anderson has “innocuous explanations” for his taped confession, and then spell them out. If the piece were not a platform for his claims of persecution, why does it mention that he has a three-page document called “Highlights of the Forensic Evidence That Established the Malevolent Alternations Made in the Sting Meeting Recording,” and marvel at how he shows “remarkably little bitterness” in spite of everything that’s happened?

If STAT really didn’t mean to re-investigate the case, why did the site reach out for comment from the prosecutor’s office that put Anderson on trial, and from his victim’s mother? (Neither agreed to be interviewed.) Finally, if STAT really tried to focus on the science, not the crime—then it’s certainly odd to mention Anderson’s sense of kinship with Muhammad Ali, another “icon at the top of his game whose life and career were derailed by what [Anderson] calls a flawed, unjust system.”

It also seems a little strange to relate Anderson’s self-aggrandizing and improbable tales of prison life, including the elderly pedophile’s claim that “he had the speed and physical prowess to counter anyone who threatened him,” and that he earned so much respect from his fellow inmates they made him a prison “godfather,” holding doors open for him wherever he went.*

But let’s pretend, for a moment, that the STAT piece did not, in fact, contradict its stated goals and provide a platform for Anderson’s campaign to self-mythologize and clear his name. If we put all of that material aside, would there be any value to the rest? When you ask Anderson to share his thoughts on science, what, exactly does he say?

Not that much. Anderson doesn’t offer many thoughts on new developments in his field. He says the CRISPR technology for altering genes, certainly the most notable development in his field since his imprisonment, is “not that surprising,” since scientists had understood the basics since the 1970s. He asserts that at the time of his arrest in 2004, he was on the verge of delivering a cure for cancer in the form of “suicide gene” insertions into tumor cells. (STAT quotes two other researchers, both anonymous, who describe this claim as highly dubious.) After that he shares his odd idea that if you heat the chemicals guanine and cytosine inside a test tube, they will form into a double helix and thus fill in “the major step in the origin of life.”

Even Anderson’s greatest accomplishment—the first successful use of gene therapy, on a 4-year-old girl with “Bubble Boy Disease,” back in 1990—doesn’t seem quite so great in retrospect. That’s the work for which he’s famous, the basis for his status as a research pioneer, but as the STAT piece points out nearly 30 years later, it’s not exactly clear his method ever worked as advertised. (His prized patient was never taken off her standard treatment.) And in 1999, a teenager named Jesse Gelsinger received a treatment similar to the one that Anderson had given to the 4-year-old; only this time it caused a bad reaction. Gelsinger became feverish and jaundiced; his kidneys and his lungs began to fail; and then, a few days later, he was dead. (The application of gene therapy was put on hold for years.)

Indeed, it seems possible that whatever credit Anderson received for that “breakthrough” work was a function of his salesmanship rather than his science. A 2005 profile of the doctor in Los Angeles magazine cited colleagues’ accusations that he was an incorrigible publicity hound who made a habit of accepting kudos for others’ work. The story quotes one prominent geneticist, Theodore Friedmann, in saying that “[Anderson’s] science is derivative.”

Even if he were a genius, we’d still be left to wonder how one might disentangle his accomplishments in science from his abuse of other people. This is just the most extreme example of a common problem, though. What about the other brilliant, Monstrous Men in Science? In recent years their ranks have swelled with bold-faced names. A number of these research legends have now resigned their academic posts and been humiliated before their peers. There’s no consensus, though, on how their misbehavior might affect the status of their past research.

It’s tempting to conclude that science ought to operate by different rules, in this regard, than other domains of creativity. When artists are alleged to be abusive, that information can be used to reinterpret all their work. A painting by Picasso is shaded by the artist’s well-established harmful tendencies with women. Woody Allen’s movies, watched again, show signs of cruelty and cynicism. Louis C.K.’s comedy of male enlightenment comes off, in retrospect, as naked propaganda for his decency. We’ve assumed, in all these cases, that the artist and his work are intertwined.

In science, though, we tend to treat the monstrous man as if he were composite: a brilliant Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, the asshole Mr. Hyde. A researcher’s accomplishments and his depredations must be unrelated; after all, a finding is a finding, however vile its instrument. When James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, said that women are “probably less effective” as scientists, and that black people are unintelligent, his outrageous bigotry did not reshape the natural world and force the double-helix to unwind. It only showed he was a jerk.

Yet even when it comes to molecular biology, I’m not sure that one can really tease these strands apart. It’s true, DNA is double-helical; that’s a fact about the universe, free of human values. But the discovery of DNA remains a social construct. Who came up with the idea, and how important was it? What accolades did that person merit for his work? The answers to those questions will always be subjective, and just as vexing, in their way, as those one might ask about Picasso, Polanski, or Pound.

And really, Watson’s outing as a sexist (and a racist) is hardly unrelated to the story of his science. It offers up some very useful context for his apparent theft of scientific credit from a female colleague, Rosalind Franklin. So, too, might STAT have used Anderson’s history as a child-abuser to better understand his work. When the details of his landmark research into gene therapy are inspected in the ugly light of his conviction, they seem to hint at something deeper in his character: Not his brilliance but his narcissism.

A New York Times profile of Anderson, written by reporter Robin Marantz Henig and published near the height of his celebrity in 1991, begins, rather awkwardly now, with the doctor hugging and tickling the little girl who would be the vehicle of his success. Henig goes on to say that Anderson’s achievement had been largely bureaucratic—a feat of politicking and cajoling, a working-over of the regulators in Washington, so that he might push ahead with an experiment which others deemed too risky. “In fact,” writes Henig, “his ability to rub shoulders effectively might be why gene therapy was ever able to get off the ground.”

Speaking to STAT in May, Anderson makes exactly this point on his own behalf: He boasts at having solved not just the scientific problem of gene therapy, but also the “ethics problem” and the “regulatory problem,” too. But other top scientists had described his work as “wrong, dangerous, irresponsible.” Given how the same approach later led to tragedies like Gelsinger’s, one really ought to ask: What if those other scientists were right about the risks?

It’s not too hard to trace a line between the research breakthrough that made Anderson a star and the crime that sent him to jail. In both cases, one could argue that he made a child instrumental to his grandiose desires, while claiming to be helping them. (Remember how he said that he’d abused his victim for her benefit, in order to help her with her self-esteem?)

I’m afraid one more often finds this logic revving in reverse: Instead of using a scientist’s misbehavior to change the way we see his genius, we let his genius change the way we see his misbehavior. That’s been the case for Anderson, at any rate, almost from the start. “I believe that God gave me certain abilities and it’s my responsibility to use them,” he told STAT. The old Times profile notes that Anderson was “such a brilliant student that his teachers took his test scores off the grading curve so his classmates wouldn’t hate him.”

Elsewhere he’s described as a child prodigy who was slow to develop “people skills.” These same purported traits—his God-given brains and social awkwardness—have been adduced in favor of his innocence. At trial, Anderson told the prosecutor that he has an IQ of 178; that number also shows up in a recent article in the Beverly Hills Courier that takes his claims of persecution at face value. Anderson’s wife has said that his apparent confession, recorded in a confrontation with his victim, resulted from his lack of people skills. “It was frightening. … He just wanted to get away,” she told Wired’s Jennifer Kahn. Later she compares him to the troubled mathematician John Nash: “Only when one understands how different geniuses are can they be understood.”

His colleagues, too, have used his purported genius and strange temperament to explain away the accusation that he raped a child. The Courier quotes Anderson’s Harvard roommate (and fellow genius) Jared Diamond: “I think it’s very unlikely that he’s guilty,” said Diamond. “French has character traits … that make him very prone to be naïve or do foolish things.” The STAT piece notes that, ahead of his sentencing in 2006, several hundred prominent scientists wrote letters to the court “vouching for his integrity and character.”

His trial judge didn’t buy into this special pleading. In fact, he cited Anderson’s “intellectual arrogance”—not his genius—as a factor in his punishment. That’s what makes it so disturbing to see the article in STAT, which seems to take its subject’s view that he’s a genius, a “world renowned scientist” who just happens to have spent a dozen years in jail and now must wear an ankle monitor. Monstrous men of science shouldn’t get to frame their own identities, and they shouldn’t be allowed to fog their misbehaviors. Here’s another, better way to see the subject of this story: He’s not a scientist who ended up in prison; he’s a child-molester who ended up in science.

*Update, Aug. 1, 2018: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Anderson was convicted of continuous sexual abuse and lewd acts with a child, not pedophilia.