What AIDS Researcher Dr. Robert Gallo Did in Pursuit of the Nobel Prize
By Seth Roberts
Spy July 1990
"If Machiavelli were to write a book today, he'd call it The Lab Chief."
- a former colleague of Dr. Robert Gallo's
In Tysons Corner, Virginia, in 1985, a woman was buying a car. When
she mentioned to the salesman that she was a scientist, he told her a story
about a neighbor of his, a scientist as well, who had recently complained
at a cocktail party that he had been cheated out of a Nobel Prize in Medicine.
A few years later the same woman was chatting with a man who did landscaping
for her. He happened to say that one of his clients had said he'd been
cheated out of two Nobel Prizes. The client had won lots of other prizes,
though, and each time he won one and got the prize money, he called up
the landscaper and had some yard work done.
The unlucky scientist in both cases was Dr. Robert Gallo, ex-discoverer
of the AIDS virus.
As a lab chief at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National
Institutes of Health (NlH), in Bethesda, Maryland, Gallo is probably the
best-known AIDS researcher in the world. He is usually called, albeit erroneously,
''codiscoverer of the AIDS virus." The Who's Who entry he wrote
for himself modestly lists only 23 of the roughly 80 prizes he has won
in his 25-year career, such as the American Cancer Society's Medal of Honor,
the Griffuel prize of the Association for Cancer Research, the General
Motors Charles S. Mott Medal, honorary citizenship from the Italian city
of Ravello and, most impressive, two Lasker Awards, the most prestigious
American award in biomedical research. No one else has received two Lasker
Awards, a fact Gallo himself mentions rather more often than is absolutely
necessary. People, in one of its lazier cover stories, named Gallo
one of "The Thirty Hardest Working Celebs," along with
Barbara Cartland, Cyncli Lauper and Menudo. "The search for a desperately
needed AIDS vaccine keeps the top medical sleuth in his laboratory...
72 hours a week;" the magazine said. Last October Newsweek
called him one of America's 25 "leading innovators."
That may have been the zenith of Gallo's career arc. A month
after Newsweek's salute, just after Gallo had a special audience
with the pope, the Chicago Tribune published a book-length special
supplement by Pulitzer-winning reporter John Crewdson called "The
Great AIDS Quest," which detailed the discovery of the AIDS
virus, focusing on Gallo's role. Crewdson exhaustively investigated what
many in the scientific community and the gay press had been saying for
years, and his piece made it clear that Gallo's main claim to fame - his
"codiscovery" of the AIDS virus - was not valid, and probably
fraudulent: the virus that Gallo put forth in 1984 as the cause of AIDS
was not an independent discovery but merely a copy of a virus sample sent
to him nine months earlier by cooperative French scientists at the Pasteur
Institute in Paris. In the three-year battle for credit and patents that
followed, the French were shown to be the rightful discoverers, despite
the politically maneuvered "amicable" agreement to split the
credit for the discovery between the two countries. Though the Tribune
piece provoked investigations of Gallo by the NIH and by
Congress (both of which are still going on), most of the nations
newspapers choose to ignore the story. Gallo told a journalist that last
winter someone from The New York Times, in a perfect expression
of journalistic distance, sent him a note with the reassuring message Don't
worry, we won't pick up the Tribune piece. Meanwhile, Gallo
will chair a seminar and give an invitational address at this summer's
Sixth International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco.
What the Chicago Tribune report did not emphasize is that in
the midst of the AIDS epidemic, Gallo's self-interested bid for glory has
had a terrible human cost: by refusing to acknowledge the significance
of the French scientists' earlier discoveries, he delayed the introduction
of a widely available blood test for the AIDS virus by about a year. During
that year thousands of hospital patients and hemophiliacs received tainted
blood from blood banks and became infected, and many of the already infected
unwittingly spread the virus. And Gallo slowed down AIDS research in other
ways: he made it difficult for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and
fellow researchers to obtain necessary supplies and samples of virus, and
most damaging of all, as the Tribune showed, he published a vast amount
of incorrect data and misleading conclusions. Interviews with 40 of Gallo's
colleagues and peers indicate that his egomaniacal performance did not
surprise those who know him well. As a scientist who once worked in his
lab puts it, Gallo was known for "this sort of unscrupulous behavior
ten years before HIV [the AIDS virus] ever came along. When the stakes
got higher, he was capable of doing anything. The stakes became too high."
Most public comments about Robert Gallo sound like excerpts from a particularly
fulsome, over-the-top eulogy. According to Dani Bolognesi, an AIDS researcher
at Duke University, he is "without doubt one of the great scientists
of our time." Samuel Broder, a cancer researcher and Gallo's boss
at NIH, told The Washington Post that Gallo has "influenced
things in our lives to an incalculable degree. Einstein, Freud - I'd put
him on a list like that, I really would." Flossie Wong-Staal, who
recently left Gallo's lab for an endowed chair in AIDS research at the
University of California at San Diego, bid up even that assessment. "First
came God, then came Gallo," she told the Los Angeles Times.
The NationaI Institutes of Health, where Gallo presides over a lab of
some 50 scientists and a budget of $13 million, has been described by its
current overseer, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan,
as "the cutting edge of science." It has been described by past
and present employees as a "den of thieves" and as being "full
of mediocrities" In its quantity of intrigue and capricious purges,
it resembles a "medieval Italian town," says one former employee.
He adds, "I'm surprised somebody hasn't killed someone there"
Few of the NIH's thousands of scientists have anything like tenure.
"You know if you don't leave in harmony with your former boss, your
chances of succeeding outside are practically zero," says one scientist
there, adding, "It's hard to be an honest person in this place."
She knew three employees who committed suicide. But this culture of unremitting
servitude is apparently not enough for Gallo, who once told a lab member
that he likes to hire foreigners because if they don't do what he wants,
he can deport them.
This is the world of Gallo's ascension. It is a world that encourages
certain personality traits. Gallo is described as charming by many ("especially
when he wanted something from you," adds one co-worker) and as crude
by a few (in an elevator one day Gallo said, "Look at those knockers,"
and he has a penchant for making middle-of-the-night prank phone calls
to his competitors). Nobody denies that he is relentlessly competitive.
This part of his personality is evident "in virtually every aspect
of everything he ever did," says David Gillespie, who worked in Gallo's
lab for eight years - hardly an overstatement about a man who, at a lab
party, was observed arguing strenuously with an eight-year-old girl over
who had the better handwriting.
His shelves of awards not withstanding, Gallo told the Chicago Tribune,
"I'm not rewarded by my scientific peers," a state of affairs
he attributes to "their own inadequacies." If the top rung of
the ladder of American scientific success is the Nobel, the one just below
it is membership in the National Academy of Sciences. It is a sign of the
relative integrity of the National Academy that Gallo was not admitted
until 1988 (six ,years after he won his first Lasker), and even then, only
through a special nomination process. He had been rejected a half dozen
times and had taken the rejections very hard. Each year, after being turned
down again, he would be absent from his lab for a few days. When he returned
sulkily to work, he would say, "Fifteen bastard votes short,"
or whatever the supposedly confidential result had been. He would attribute
the result, as the attributes much of the bad news in his life, too his
After he became a member of the National Academy and won his second
Lasker in 1986, he made no secret of the fact that there was still room
on his awards shelf. As cancer researcher Peter Duesberg puts it, "It
is not hard to get Gallo to talk about a Nobel Prize." It isn't a
recent obsession. In 1974 Gallo tried to recruit one scientist with the
line "Don't you want to be able to say you were in a lab that won
a Nobel Prize?" and in 1980 he asked one scientist joining his lab,
"What are you going to do to win me a Nobel Prize?"
This fixation comes up so often in Gallo's conversation that it's practically
a rhetorical device. When an NIH review committee decided against promoting
Gallo's former mistress and lab employee Flossie Wong-Staal because Gallo
was a co-author on all of her papers, he called the head of the
committee at home. After ranting for a while, he said, Of course Flossie
did all this molecular biology herself; if the committee really thought
I did all this molecular biology, then I deserve two Nobel Prizes.
It was a foregone conclusion that he deserved one.
Gallo cuts few corners in his Nobel politicking. In the early 1980s
his good friend George Klein, a virologist, was on the Nobel committee.
At a conference that year Gallo made sure to have dinner with Klein every
night; then someone told Gallo that Klein had been replaced on the committee
by the immunologist Hans Wigzell. Gallo dined with Wigzell the very next
night. Last year, just before the Tribune piece appeared, Gallo
contacted two congressional investigators looking into financial misdeeds
by one of his employees. He complained about recent news stories, saying
that the damage to his image might cost him a Nobel Prize.
A reseacher in Gallo's lab once told the boss that Einstein was his
favorite scientist; he especially admired Einstein's magnanimity. Gallo
replied, "You are naive, Einstein could afford to be magnanimous because
he was a genius.'' The other scientist asked, "You mean magnanimity
is good only if you're a genius?" Gallo said, "Yeah, because
then you don't have to worry about the competition." Over the years,
Gallo's hack of magnanimity has indicated how far from a genius he believes
himself to be.
Gallo became well known at the National Cancer Institute with his claim
in a 1975 report that he and his lab had discovered a retrovirus - that
is, a virus that merges with the cell it infects - which he called HL-23,
in human leukemia cells. It was the first virus to be associated with human
cancer, and a possible first step toward finding a cure. Gallo called a
special Saturday meeting of NCI bigwigs to discuss how to proceed. One
man at the meeting recalls, "Gallo and I ended up at the urinal together
in the men's room. And he said something like, 'All the most important
virus people are here,' He said he felt he had a good chance of getting
the Nobel Prize." Major labs around the country were very interested
in HL-23, but when they requested samples from Gallo (it is a specific
NIH guideline that such materials must be made widely available), he at
least once ordered subordinates to damage the infected cells before
sending them out, to make them useless for research. He justified this
behavior to co-workers on the grounds that he was more frank with his competitors
than they were with him. It was about this time that Richard Nixon resigned,
and David Gillespie, then second-in-command at Gallo's lab, was discussing
the former president with his boss. "I was saying what a lousy president
Nixon was, because he put the ends ahead of the means," says Gillespie.
"I said it didn't matter to Nixon how he got where he was going; as
long as he got there he felt he was justified. Gallo looked at me, and
he said basically that I didn't understand the real world. He said, "Nixon
did exactly the right thing. It's unfortunate that he got caught."
Alas, Gallo's exciting HL-23 results could not be repeated, either by
his lab or by others, and the phrase human tumor virus was replaced
with human rumor virus. A cure for cancer was not imminent after
And, of course, there was no Nobel for Gallo, who remained then, as
always, obsessed with his competitors. He often discussed strategy with
Gillespie, and how to effectively orchestrate scientific conferences was
a pet concern. "If [Gallo] could get one guy from our lab to talk
before [his main competitor Sol] Spiegelman, and somebody else talk after
Spiegelman, and then while Spiegelman's talking we'd have somebody ask
him a question he couldn't answer - then Gallo would look good. We used
to spend a huge amount of time worrying about these positioning things,"
Gallo did not confine his competitiveness to other big, well-funded
labs. For a few years he reviewed grant proposals for the Leukemia Society
of America. But each year, Gallo would bring the proposals - which, of
course, were supposed to be confidential - back to Bethesda and, at a Monday-morning
meeting, pass them out to people in his lab working in related areas. Here
are their ideas, Gallo would say. Work on them ("I've never
known him to have an idea that didn't come from someone else," says
a former co-worker.) Most scientists would be repelled by such underhandedness,
but the people in Gallo's lab went through a process of adaptation and
selection. Only the weak survived: Gallo was surrounded by yes-people.
NIH lab chiefs themselves go through a similar process of adaptation
and selection, but with an emphasis on different traits. Gallo is fond
of participant sports, and as someone in his lab delicately told People,
"Gallo doesn't just like to win, he insists on winning."
According to another lab member, "With something as friendly as a
lab softball game, he'd be dirty - he'd kick you in the balls if he thought
he was going to lose." Another employee says that when Gallo was losing
at tennis, "he would start to deliberately call the lines wrong on
your side of the net. He'd hit a ball six feet out, and he'd say, 'That
isn't out, that's in.' He argues and rants and raves so long, you let him
Even as it became clearer and clearer that Gallo had not discovered
the AIDS virus but merely copied it from the French ("I think science
always builds on the discoveries of other people, doesn't it?" Gallo
told SPY), his detractors still did not completely write him off. "If
he didn't discover the AIDS virus, he still discovered IL-2," they
would say, or "He still discovered HTLV-1," the first known virus
convincingly associated with human cancer. The AIDS virus mix-up might
have been an accident, a case of laboratory contamination, wherein a virus
somehow makes its way from one petri dish to another - "an honest
mistake," says Beatrice Hahn, a former Gallo employee
In the late 1970s the discovery of IL-2, a molecule important in the
immune system, occurred despite Gallo's efforts to ignore it. Doris Morgan,
a researcher in Gallo's lab, stumbled on a way to grow certain white blood
cells. When she presented her results at a weekly lab meeting,
Gallo was unimpressed. Others in the lab, however, encouraged her to
keep working on it, and she continued without Gallo's knowledge.
Eventually, with the help of Frank Ruscetti, a cell biologist, the growing
cells were identified as T cells - key elements in the immune system. Gallo
said that "growing T cells [wouldn't] lead anywhere," and he
ordered Morgan and Ruscetti to stop working on that "'worthless molecule."
Not long after Morgan was fired, and she remained unemployed for ten months.
After Morgan was canned, Gallo did little with her discovery. Meanwhile,
Kendall Smith, a young professor at Dartmouth, started to follow up Morgan's
finding. Over the next four years, the Dartmouth lab isolated IL-2, the
molecule responsible for the growth that Morgan had observed, and began
to determine its role in the immune system. By then Gallo had finally been
forced to understand the importance of Morgan's discovery. Ever since,
he has claimed credit not only for Morgan and Ruscetti's result (the long-term
growth off cells) but also for the Dartmouth discovery. In the early 1980s
Gallo went to a meeting in France where he was asked, "Are you still
working with Ruscetti on IL-2?" Gallo reportedly answered that Ruscetti
worked for him and that he, not Ruscetti, was the brains
behind the project. When he returned to Bethesda, Gallo was so angry over
this imagined slight that he didn't speak to Ruscetti for months.
The official chronology of AIDS research, written in 1987 by Gallo and
Luc Montagnier, his French rival at the Pasteur Institute, under firm pressure
from the French and American governments, states that in 1976 Morgan, Ruscetti
and Gallo "discover" IL-2. This is like saying that in 1876 Alexander
Graham Bell invents the fax machine. When, in 1988, Kendall Smith published
a paper in the prestigious journal Science that accurately
described the discovery of IL-2, Gallo was infuriated and phoned
Smith from an AIDS conference in Stockholm. "Kendall, I haven't read
it, but people tell me you were not nice to me." (It is a peculiar
habit of Gallo's to claim he hasn't read or seen or heard whatever
he is vociferously criticizing.) Then Gallo phoned Ruscetti, to whom he
had long since stopped speaking, and said, "Frank, we've got to do
something about this goddamn Kendall Smith. He's screwing us."
The us amused Ruscetti. When Gallo couldn't convince Ruscetti to
write a letter of complaint to Science, he finally got a flunky
at an affiliated lab to do it.
Doris Morgan's 1975 "accident" (her word) made it easier to
determine what viruses infect T cells, and ultimately led to the discovery
of HTLV-1. Gallo's lab had been looking for such viruses without success
for years when Bernie Poiesz arrived in 1978 for a postdoctoral fellowship.
Within months, with Ruscetti's help, Poiesz found a retrovirus in a patient
with lymphoma, a kind of T-cell cancer. It was the first cancer retrovirus
isolated from a human. Poiesz and Ruscetti co-wrote a paper reporting their
results. When it was nearly finished, Gallo called Ruscetti and said he
had a few revisions he wanted to make. Ruscetti said he would get Poiesz
and be right over. Gallo said, "No, come alone." When Ruscetti
arrived, Gallo said, "You know, Frank, the person in the lab who did
the work doesn't always have to be first author." Ruscetti took the
conventional view that the person who did most of the work, who had most
of the creative input - in this case, Poiesz - should be first author (that
is, his name should come first in the byline). Gallo said, "Frank,
with an attitude like that you'll never get ahead in life." Ruscetti
stood firm; Poiesz was first author.
HTLV-1 was however a solution without a problem; it was not at all obvious
that the virus had caused the lymphoma. The question of what the virus
did was solved by a group of Japanese scientists who were trying to find
the cause of an outbreak of a rare form of leukemia in southern Japan.
Working independently, they isolated the same virus as Poiesz and Ruscetti
and determined that it was the cause of the leukemia. Learning that a retrovirus
could cause a disease in humans made it much easier to recognize that AIDS
was caused by a retrovirus.
The discovery of HTLV-1 by Gallo's lab is, so far, the most important
real achievement of Gallo's career. He provided the goal - to find
a virus that caused some sort of human cancer, at a time when such a theory
was unpopular - and the means with which the virus was found. Poiesz compares
the discovery of HTLV-1 to the Celtics' winning an NBA championship: Poiesz
was like Larry Bird, actually taking the shots; Ruscetti was like the coach;
and Gallo was like the general manager. Yet in the decade that followed,
Gallo, who has not done any lab work for years, received almost
all the credit. For instance, the Lasker prize committee, with the
plantation mentality typical of scientific-award givers, gave Gallo alone
a prize for the discovery. And although it was the Japanese, not Gallo,
who first associated the virus with cancer, Gallo wrote to a colleague
who had asked for an HTLV-1 reading list that "much of the additional
work, most of it from Japan, is really not terribly relevant."
All the credit was not enough for Gallo. He also expended enormous energy
to corner the market on all future related discoveries. After Poiesz's
fellowship in Gallo's lab ended. Poiesz went on to a job at the State University
of New York Medical Center in Syracuse. There he applied for a grant to
do further research on HTLV-1. Gallo was one of the reviewers of the grant
and, in his review, implied that Poiesz wasn't competent to do research
on HTLV-1 - the retrovirus Poiesz himself had isolated. Poiesz phoned
Gallo and, in a brief conversation, threatened legal action, Gallo then
wrote a new, positive review. Ruscetti fared much worse. Gallo fired him
and then worked to prevent him from getting another job. When Ruscetti
asked why he was being fired, Gallo replied, "Well, because you're
getting too much credit." Last year Gallo told the Chicago Tribune,
"I tend to be competitive. I hope to God I don't hurt anybody."
I hope to God I don't hurt anybody. Although someone pivotal in
the discovery of IL-2 and HTLV-1 should have been very employable, Ruscetti
was unable to get a job. Gallo would write Ruscetti positive letters of
recommendation but then, apparently, bad-mouth him over the phone. Many
job possibilities fell through. Six months after firing Ruscetti, and days
after killing his most recent job offer, Gallo rehired him - because, he
told Ruscetti, he felt sorry for him. He then gave Ruscetti nothing to
do. "Gallo wanted to bury him, as far as I can see, says one recipient
of Gallo's calls. "He didn't want him to surface ever again."
(Asked by SPY simply to comment on Ruscetti's career, Gallo got defensive.
"I never intervened to harm Frank Ruscetti. I've never, ever been
asked about Frank Ruscetti. Maybe his first boss asked me - I'm not sure.")
One former co-worker asked about Gallo's scorched-earth policy, says, "His
budget is enormous, and the number of people he has is enormous, and the
number of people he collaborates with is enormous, so the fear of one person's
leaving the lab and starting competition is ludicrous. Why he would waste
such time worrying about it is beyond rational understanding. But he does."
The appearance of AIDS released Gallo upon the world. "There are
few people more important to the immediate future of the public health,"
wrote David Remnick of Gallo in The Washington Post in 1987,
and it may have been true. After a long, more or less dormant period during
which he terrorized people only in his immediate vicinity, Gallo could
now work his special mischief on a wide scale. He was influential for two
simple reasons: (a) there were many sick people, and (b) it was automatically
understood that a Nobel Prize was at stake, to be won by the person who
found the cause of or developed a vaccine for or found a cure for AIDS.
Winning the prize was not the same as helping the people.
It was in many ways a good thing that when the AIDS epidemic began,
there was at least one experienced, hyperambitious, aggressive retrovirologist
ready to search for the cause. Gallo was, from a competitive standpoint,
in a terrific position: his lab knew better than any other American lab
how to isolate retroviruses from humans, and it had far more money than
any other lab in the field. "We were the best human retrovirology
lab on earth," says Gallo. It 'is a testament to Gallo's managerial
and scientific ability that with all these advantages he finished no better
than third in the race to find the AIDS virus.
Although Gallo is known as the father of human retrovirology, it apparently
took a suggestion in 1982 from another scientist, Arthur Levine, according
to the Chicago Tribune, before he began to consider that AIDS might
be caused by a retrovirus. He soon proposed that AIDS was caused by HTLV-1,
the leukemia causing virus to which he had affixed his name. It was an
absurd, self-serving idea - a "puerile speculation," according
to Joseph Sonnabend, a prominent AIDS researcher, and an idea even Gallo
now calls "stupid" - not only because the cancer caused by HTLV-1
(too many T cells) is the opposite of AIDS (too few T cells) but also because
there was no detectable AIDS in Japan, where the HTLV-1 virus infected
at least a million people. Gallo's reaction to this objection was that,
well, maybe the Japanese responded differently to the virus. Amazingly,
the scientific community bought Gallo's line. Though Sonnabend found no
HTLV-1 in AIDS patients, in 1983 he could not get a paper published reporting
this result. Gallo, meanwhile, claimed that he had defected HTLV-1 in cells
from an AIDS patient. Another AIDS researcher who had been working with
homosexual patients, had been trying to do the same thing without success,
and he wondered whether the discrepancy between his results and Gallo's
was due to a difference in the risk group studied. Was your patient
a Haitian? he asked Gallo. A hemophiliac? "It was
a fucking fag," said Gallo.
It was Francoise Barre, Jean-Claude Chermann and Luc Montagnier of the
Pasteur Institute who actually first isolated the AIDS virus. When the
group sent a paper to Science in April 1983 describing their early
results - isolation of the virus from one patient with swollen lymph glands
- Gallo, who reviewed the paper for Science before publication,
added a sentence to the introduction. It stated that the French virus "appears
to be a member of the human T-cell leukemia virus (HTLV) family."
The main text of the paper said no such thing"
Because the French had isolated the virus from only one patient, it
was still no clear that the virus caused the disease, and other scientists
continued to search for other causes. Jim Mullins, a young biologist at
Harvard, working with cells he had got from the CDC, had found considerable
evidence for an AIDS associated virus. When Mullins mentioned his results
at a CDC meeting in June 1983, Gallo exploded at him, complaining nonsensically
that Mullins had go behind his back. You ingrate! You only have your
grant because of me, screamed Gallo during a 45-minute public rant,
Mullins says, "[Gallo] thought I might have found the virus."
The CDC, fearing Gallo's wrath, stopped sending Mullins cells he needed,
thereby delaying his research for many months. Commenting his tantrum,
Gallo floats the explanation that somehow Mullins prevented from getting
supplies. "I was disturbed that we weren't getting any donor matched
blood samples," he says, adding, "This is time truth; that is
true; that's way it is; that is true."
The same summer Gallo raged at Mullins for his progress, Gallo's lab
requested a sample of the virus the French had discovered. When it arrived,
researchers tested it and established that it was not HTLV-1, Gallo's pet
virus. The turning point in the search for the cause of AIDS came a couple
of months later, at a scientific meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
on Long Island. Montagnier presented more results: he showed conclusively
that the French virus and HTLV-1 were not closely related, and he provided
more evidence that the French virus did indeed cause AIDS. Though one eminent
scientist told Montagnier, "You've probably got it," Gallo was
bitterly critical of the French hypothesis during the question period after
the talk, saying that there was "no way it could be true." Without
Gallo's support most of the scientific community was not convinced by the
In spite of his public skepticism, Gallo was in fact terribly worried
that the French had beaten him. Moreover the case for Gallo's HTLV was
looking worse and worse. His lab requested another sample of the French
virus. A friend of Francoise Barre's asked a scientist in Gallo's lab whether
they should go ahead and send it. The scientist was not reassuring: "You're
absolutely crazy. He'll steal you blind." But they sent it anyway.
''[Montagnier] really thought Gallo was a great scientist and would help
him," says a former Gallo employee. Once the French virus arrived,
Gallo's lab got it to grow. With the knowledge thus gained, according to
one source, the Gallo researchers were able to isolate other examples of
the same type of virus from AIDS patients. But the French virus grew best
- and it was the French virus that Gallo's lab used for their research.
Gallo's lab notes, obtained by the Chicago Tribune, show that the
French virus was renamed a couple of times, apparently to hide the fact
that it was being used. Gallo later claimed that the French virus didn't
grow. In February 1984, Jean-Claude Chermann asked Mikulas Popovic, Gallo's
chief virologist, what had happened to the samples of virus that had been
sent. "I cannot speak," Popovic replied. Only the boss can speak."
The following spring, Science published four papers from Gallo's
lab, the four papers on which Gallo's celebrity as an AIDS hero mainly
rests. "Getting one paper in Science is a lot," Gallo
crowed. "Getting two is fantastic. Getting three is a record. We had
four at one time." The first paper reported the isolation of a so-called
new virus from AIDS patients. Deliberate or not, this was viral plagiarism:
Gallo's lab had simply copied the French virus. The second paper declared
that the new virus had been "isolated from a total of 48 subjects,"
a finding that would go far toward proving that the virus caused the disease.
This was wishful thinking: examination of the lab notes by the Chicago
Tribune found no trace of these 48 isolates. Not until time spring
of 1985 - a year later - did Gallo ship to other labs any viruses besides
the one he had copied from the French. The main conclusion of the third
paper was that the new virus was "a true member of the HTLV family"
and thus connected with Gallo's previous work. A proud would-be father
Gallo named it HTLV-3B. But this too was wishful thinking: in 1986 a nomenclature
committee, of which Gallo was a member, decided that the AIDS virus was
no more closely related to members of the HTLV family than to any other
retrovirus. Gallo refused to sign the committee's final report and for
a full year, like a pouty child, refused to adopt the new name (HIV) it
chose for the virus.
Gallo's final, triumphant 1984 Science paper described a blood
test for the virus. Although the French team had come up with a clearly
superior test four months earlier, the Gallo test was nevertheless
patented in the U.S. and was eventually used to screen millions of pints
of blood, earning Gallo personally hundreds of thousands of dollars. The
similarities between the French test and the Gallo test led to a lengthy
multimillion- dollar legal battle that helped delay the test's availability.
Just before the publication of the Science papers, then-secretary
of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler held a press conference
starring Gallo. She proclaimed, "Today we add a new miracle to the
long honor roll of American medicine and science" - a bit of puffery
not quite consistent with Gallo's current claim that he and Heckler gave
the French "full credit."
Lab notes obtained by the Tribune show that by the time of the
press conference, Gallo's lab knew his virus and the French virus were
not different viruses. Soon after this Gallo began saying he had isolated
the HIV virus as early as November 1982 - six months before the French
announced their results - "but couldn't analyze [it] in a way I would
have wanted my name attached to."There is no data to support this
claim." Though Gallo tried to prevent other researchers from comparing
the two viruses (even telling one scientist he didn't "have the right"
to compete them), the comparisons were eventually made anyway. The first
was published in 1985. It showed that independent virus samples differed
by roughly 10 percent but that the Gallo virus and the French virus differed
by only 2 percent. Gallo said the similarity might be because "the
individuals from whom these isolates were derived acquired the virus at
a similar time and place," which made about as much sense as two students,
saying that maybe their term papers were identical because they had studied
But Gallo had the press in his pocket. Even after Joseph Sonnabend pointed
out the suspicious similarity between Gallo's virus and the French virus
at a New York AIDS press conference in 1985, journalists continued to call
Gallo codiscoverer of the AIDS virus. To this day, Gallo feels that "the
high-level press has been very intelligent" about him.
Despite the "intelligence" of the press, the story that Gallo's
virus was just a knockoff of the French virus began slowly to spread. And
Gallo, naturally, tried to suppress it. His curious relationship with Michael
Koch, a Swedish epidemiologist, shows just how wacky and manic his modus
operandi had become. Gallo first met Koch, who was working on a book about
AIDS, in 1983, and when Gallo learned that Koch was from Sweden - land
of Nobel - he suddenly became very friendly (around this time, Gallo's
curiously chummy collaborations with not very. distinguished Swedish AIDS
researchers became a joke among other scientists). However, when Gallo
figured out that Koch had taken the side of the French and that his forthcoming
book (AIDS: From Molecule to Pandemic) was not going
to toe the Gallo line, he phoned a number of Koch's acquaintances all over
Europe. What he told them can be summed up by his description of Koch to
a German newspaper - "that fucking idiot." When Koch wrote Gallo,
informing him that someone had taped one of his nasty phone calls, Gallo
called all of Koch's acquaintances back in a frenzy - what a phone bill!
- to tell them to disregard what he had said earlier. But his memory was
faulty, and apparently he ended up calling some people whom he hadn't called
Koch's book appeared in Swedish in 1985. At a 1987 meeting in Geneva,
after a long, strangely friendly conversation with Koch, Gallo suddenly
changed tacks. In the manner of a James Bond villain, he took an envelope
from his pocket and told Koch, "Here I have a five-step program to
destroy you.'' Then he put the envelope away and added that neither of
them would gain anything by fighting. Even after this odd bit of theater,
the following year Gallo, worried about the English translation of Koch's
book, convinced Robert Windom, assistant secretary for Health, and Ronald
Robertson, general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services,
to write a threatening letter to Koch's publisher in West Germany
Time truth about his "discovery" of the AIDS virus reached
a wider American audience with the publication in 1987 of Randy Shilts's
book, And the Band Played On. Though this expose of Gallo received
little play, Gallo reacted by shifting into his familiar ballistic-telephoning
mode. He blasted Shilts to anyone who would listen, with the curious charge
that Shilts had not interviewed him. In truth, Shilts had not only interviewed
him but had done so on tape. (Gallo, of course, said he hadn't read the
book.) When a Time magazine fact checker working on a review of
the Shilts book called the NIH, a press spokesman there said, "Yeah,
everybody here believes [Gallo] stole the virus."
Gallo decided that a prominent AIDS researcher at the CDC named Don
Francis was responsible for Shilts's unflattering portrait, In 1988 Francis
received from Gallo a letter, written by and addressed to Gallo, affirming
that Gallo was the discoverer of the AIDS virus. It was complete except
for the signature - Don Francis's name was typed in at the bottom, Gallo
gave Francis 48 hours to sign it. After 24 hours with no response, Gallo
phoned Francis and, when he learned that the researcher wouldn't sign,
"went bananas," says Francis.
A man who has been called a four-year-old by his peers, Gallo is a master
of the ad hominem attack. When asked by Spin magazine about Peter
Duesberg, a virologist who disagrees with him about whether HIV causes
AIDS, Gallo said, "[Duesberg] comes to meetings with guys with leather
jackets and the hair and so on in the middle. I mean that's a little bit
odd. Doesn't it speak of something funny?" In private, Gallo said
that Duesberg objected to his ideas only because Duesberg was gay and/or
mentally disturbed - descriptions Gallo has applied to many
people he fears or dislikes.
True to his school-yard-bully persona, Gallo does not just pick on people
his own size. Last spring the great man gave a lecture at the University
of California at Davis. After the usual Gallo presentation, an undergraduate
asked a mildly critical question. Gallo's incisive reply: "You think
you know more than I do?" Another student wanted to know how much
AIDS virus was in the brains of AIDS patients. "A lot," said
Gallo. The questioner wondered what a lot meant - what percentage
of the cells were infected? Gallo's reply: "Do you know what lymphadenopathy
is? Can you pronounce it?"
Without AIDS, Gallo would have been simply another grasping, over-productive,
underscrupulous scientist. Dozens of awards, hundreds of papers, thousands
of tantrums, a vast phone bill, a ringside seat at the discoveries of IL-2
and HTLV-1, and a handful of derailed careers - that would have been the
Gallo legacy. AIDS, however, gave him the chance to really make a difference.
When Gallo heard Luc Montagnier tell the 1983 Cold Spring Harbor conference
about his detection of the AIDS virus in a wide range of AIDS patients,
he could easily have decided to work with the French rather than against
them. It would have taken no special effort for him to return to Bethesda,
confirm the French results, publish a quick confirmation in the esteemed
British publication Nature and put his weight behind the French
conclusions. Although he would have lost the race to find the virus, he
could have won later races, such as that for the development of a vaccine.
A reliable blood test for the virus could have been widely available by
the summer of 1984.
But as one AIDS researcher says, "Gallo wants to lay first claim
on every discovery in the field." When he heard Montagnier's Cold
Spring Harbor talk, his lab was not even close to finding the correct virus
- something the French had done seven months earlier - and any frank, remotely
honest person would have conceded defeat. Not Gallo. As Gallo told SPY,
the Cold Spring Harbor news sparked his "competitive instincts."
During the squabble for credit that followed, the world was treated to
what one researcher calls "an international pissing contest."
Because of the delay in Gallo's announcement and the confusion it caused
(were the French and American viruses the same or different?), time blood
test - the inferior American version - didn't reach the blood banks until
the summer of 1985. This is what British virologist Abraham Karpas refers
to as "the lost year." During that year thousands of people who
received transfusions became infected with HIV and many of them are now
dying or dead.
The November 1989 publication of John Crewdson's remarkable "The
Great AIDS Quest" in the Chicago Tribune was a milestone in
Gallo studies, though the average reader probably had trouble picking out
all the threads of Gallo's wrong doing from among the 50,000 words of scientific
detail. But biologists understood it, and they began to see what those
in Gallo's lab already knew - that "he would do whatever it takes,"
as one of them put it. While Crewdson was reporting the article, Gallo
complained to his editor a number of times about the writer, accusing Crewdson
- who has won a Pulitzer prize and written two well-regarded books - of
being a journalistic hit man hired by Gallo's enemies.
Demonstrating a Gallo-like willingness to acknowledge important disclosures,
the Times mentioned the Tribune piece only in a media-beat
article called "Do Special Sections Overwhelm Readers?," which
noted in its first sentence that "it has become almost a fad"
to publish special sections, later described as "boring,"
"distracting" and "heavily influenced by hopes of winning
journalism awards." By then, the Tribune piece had prompted
Although Gallo, true to form, told a reporter that he hadn't read Crewdson's
piece and didn't intend to, he professed to be pleased by it. "I am
glad to have the article, he told Spin. "It is very interesting,
most amusing, and not very serious, although very detailed."
In private, however, his response was not so blithe. He phoned Larry Kramer,
a founder of ACT-UP, and told him that the Tribune article
had rendered him emotionally incapable of conducting more research
With the announcement in February that the NIH had asked the National
Academy of Sciences to help assemble a group of scientists to investigate
Gallo - an announcement that went unreported in the Times - the
last act of Gallo's career has apparently begun. The size and eminence
of the panel are unprecedented and show how seriously senior NIH officials
take Crewdson's charges, charges that Gallo told SPY he considers "almost
anti-American." After the probes were announced, Gallo issued the
standard statement: "I have done nothing wrong, and I have no apprehension
or anxiety about the review." As Thorstein Veblen was fond of saying,
the reason for the denial was the need for it. *