The Death of an American Hero

Walter A. Nelson-Rees, 1929-2009

Once again I have the sad task of having to report the death of a fine scientist, and a good man. Below I include a link to the excellent obituary notice that was sent me by Walter’s partner of the last fifty years, Jim Coran, which reveals many unexpected and little-known details about Walter’s life and scientific career.

Walter A. Nelson-Rees Obituary

In addition, I would like to add some words of my own.

Walter Nelson-Rees was a kind and gentle man – and a most unusual hero. He was also one of the most loyal and valued supporters of my work on the origins of AIDS.

Walter’s main claim to fame was the fact that, as an employee of the Naval Biological Laboratory in Berkeley, California, he more or less single-handedly revealed the extraordinary fact that roughly one third of all the tissue cultures in laboratories around the world had been colonised and taken over by the human cancer cell line called HeLa. This story is beautifully told in Michael Gold’s book, A Conspiracy of Cells [SUNY Press, New York; 1985/1986]. This reveals that the reward that Walter received for his significant act of courage was to be driven out of his job at the NBL, after his lab was subjected to swingeing cuts.

The great irony about Walter’s work was that scientists in labs around the world had been aware, since the 50s, that many standard tissue cultures had been “transformed” by HeLa. In fact, anyone who spends a few hours looking through the published literature of the 1950s should be able to discern what is happening. The other scientists, however, were more comfortable with keeping quiet and pretending that nothing was amiss. After Walter had resigned his post, one of his former colleagues, Jim Duff, commented: “They don’t award Nobel prizes for finding out that things are wrong.”

Walter was thus a martyr to the cause of truth-telling in science, a martyr of the calibre of that other great American hero, Bernice Eddy of the NIH, who blew the whistle on the fact that by 1960 most of the world’s polio vaccines had been contaminated with a monkey virus, SV-40, that caused tumours in hamsters. Like Walter, Bernice Eddy’s reward for this brave act was to be persecuted and driven out of her lab by powerful members of the scientific establishment. These persecutors were individuals whose own interests were better served if the whistle-blowers kept quiet, even if this might lead to serious scientific miscalculations, and even if this in turn translated into human deaths and human suffering. According to the cowards who drove these two truth-tellers from their jobs, it was better to have a comfy status quo in which no fingers of blame were pointed, no responsibility taken.

The histories of these two courageous scientists speak volumes about the moral calibre of modern-day science and contemporary scientists.

I first had contact with Walter early in 2000, when I received a letter written in his painstakingly spidery hand. (Walter never quite came to terms with the world of typing and e-mails.) He had just got hold of The River, and he was clearly excited by it; he wanted urgently to get in touch. Over the next few months I received a series of letters that were warm and unstinting in their praise. We thus began a friendship, mainly conducted by letter and phone, that would last the next nine years.

Walter’s interest in the topic continued, and he was eventually asked to speak as a discussant at the Royal Society meeting on the “The Origins of HIV and the AIDS Epidemic” in September 2000. But long before September, a campaign led by a US-based ex-student of Robin Weiss’s, Professor John Moore, had made several attempts to dissuade scientists from attending the meeting. (In this, Moore was sometimes helped by his friend Laurie Garrett, the Newsday journalist who wrote The Coming Plague, who has gone on to convene meetings on AIDS for the Council on Foreign Relations). Many observers told me that Moore’s campaign had the classic look of an intelligence sting: the attempts to discredit my work and myself involved a mixture of ridicule, untruths and obfuscation. Walter was far quicker than I to see what was going on. During August he asked a friend to forward me the following e-mail (which I would imagine, because it refers to me in the third person, he had by then sent to others): “Why is there antagonism to attempts to define the origin of the AIDS epidemic? Is it not as natural to want to know [this as to want to know] why the Concorde went down?….Ed Hooper has been subjected to ridicule, distrust, demeaning comments, insults and ad hominem attacks in part because he is a journalist and not part of the so-called academe establishment. I believe that his book The River qualifies as a Ph.D . thesis as surely as any I have ever heard of.”

Walter and his life-time partner, Jim Coran, arranged to fly across to England two days before the Royal Society meeting, and I invited them to spend the night at my house in the West Country. However, in the days before the meeting the house became filled with other scientific well-wishers and sympathisers, and at the last minute I asked Walter and Jim if they would mind getting a hotel instead – a decision that I regret to this day. None the less, I and my friends spent three days together with “the Walters” up in London, during which Walter proved to be an emotional and loyal supporter, one whom I grew to value, especially as it became increasingly clear that the Royal Society conference had been set up in order to achieve a predetermined outcome.

Walter delivered an understated and yet powerful speech entitled “Responsibility for Truth in Research”, which pointed out that further cases of lab cross-contamination were still occurring, and went on to state that in his opinion there was no logical reason why chimp cells could not have been used to make the Congo vaccine, “given the availabiliity of these normal non-human cells and the prevailing custom in the 1950s of using cells about which little or nothing was known except that they could optimally support the growth of a given virus.”

He closed with two quotes. One was from Max Planck, and read as follows: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents finally die”. The other was a quote from Simon Wain-Hobson, taken from The River: “Only those who have got something to hide don’t want to discuss it.” As I recall, the area of the hall where Koprowski, Plotkin, Hahn and Sharp were sitting was pointedly silent after his address.

Use this link to read the fairly brief text of “Responsibility for Truth in Research“.

The Royal Society conference had an interesting denouement, in which Walter also played a prominent role.

The final session was chaired by Professor Hilton Whittle, the head of the MRC labs in Fajara, Gambia, and an interesting choice. Some brief background is necessary. Three years earlier I had flown to Gambia to spend a month researching in West Africa, and I had twice attempted to interview Professor Whittle. (Among other things, I had been hoping to ask him about the time in 1955 that the MRC had sent its leading tissue culture expert, F.K. Sanders, out to Fajara for a month in order to investigate the possibility of preparing polio vaccines in tissues from four different African primates. I was intrigued to discover that the report of the MRC Polio Vaccine Clinical Trials sub-committee following Sanders’ visit was missing from the files.) I managed to reach Whittle by phone, and he suggested that I interview him on my final day, before I went to the airport. I went along as arranged, expecting a ninety minute meeting, but in what appeared to be a carefully-rehearsed manoeuvre Whittle made sure that I was unable to reach him until the time that my plane was due to leave. He then promised to answer my questions in writing, a promise he failed to keep. A couple of months after that he turned up one night at the B&B that was in those days situated next-door to my house in Somerset. He made no attempt to contact me, but he did apparently ask questions about me.

My suspicion that Whittle had been carefully chosen to chair the final session was fully borne out by his performance on the podium. The penultimate speech was delivered by Brian Martin, entitled “The burden of proof and the origin of acquired immune deficiency syndrome“.

During his speech Professor Martin, a sociologist of science, criticised the system whereby “establishment science” demanded absolute proof from my side, but no proof whatsoever from Hilary Koprowski and his supporters. Noises from the area where the Koprowski group were sitting indicated that they were less than happy. Whittle promptly got Brian Martin off the stage five minutes before his allotted time. Later, however, he allowed Robin Weiss (who, after Bill Hamilton’s death, had taken over the organisation of the conference with Simon Wain-Hobson) much more than his allotted time to deliver a closing speech in which he said that maybe it was just his “plain personal prejudice”, but he thought that the OPV theory was very likely to be wrong. He offered little scientific evidence to support this reading, but he did add, apparently directly to me: “If you still believe it happened, then you’re accusing us of being liars. And that is ineluctable.” None of the foregoing quotes, which come from the conference itself, appear in the final published version of Weiss’s speech.

Long before all this, during the lunch break, I’d happened to return to the auditorium to find Professor Whittle alone on the podium. I started saying that we had nearly met in Gambia some years earlier, but he forestalled me by asking if I wanted to put a question from the floor during the closing session. He then suggested a two-part format, whereby I would begin by stating clearly that I was not casting doubt on the safety of any of today’s polio vaccines (a proposition I entirely agreed with), and then move on to my second point. So during the questions from the floor, Whittle pointed to me and I was passed the microphone. But as soon as I had finished my statement about the safety of contemporary vaccines, Whittle tried to cut me short. I managed to get most of my next question out, but he quickly moved on to someone else.

By this stage Walter had spent some minutes trying to get Whittle’s attention in order to speak from the floor, and one could see Whittle looking around, left and right, and studiously ignoring him. Eventually Walter stood up and strode from the conference hall, shouting loudly (if I recall correctly) that the meeting was a fix. He was well ahead of me in this, although I later grew to agree with him, given what happened in the months and years that followed.

Soon after Walter’s departure, Whittle asked for one final contribution from the floor, and turned to John Maynard Smith, who delivered what had clearly been set up in advance as a final closing statement to the meeting. Maynard Smith was something of a rival to Bill Hamilton, and some (not Bill) used to say that at one point in his career he had presented some of Bill’s work as his own. Somewhere I have recorded exactly what Maynard Smith said that day, but the following is what I and others recalled his saying on the day after the event: “I would like to commend Mr Hooper on his book, but it’s a shame that he didn’t try a bit harder to disprove his own theory.”

If I have remembered these words correctly, then they were patently unfair, for during the previous eight years I had consistently played devil’s advocate and had gone to enormous lengths in order to test, and indeed to disprove, the OPV theory. However, they were exactly what Hilary Koprowski and Stanley Plotkin wanted to hear – and the meeting closed to loud guffaws and cheers from their side of the room. It was only later that I heard from someone else who attended the conference that Maynard Smith had apparently told him that he hadn’t actually read my book. He had, however, apparently had Simon Wain-Hobson staying at his house two nights before the start of the conference.

[Some more background. Although we had met twice before, Wain-Hobson contacted me in September 1999, saying that he was seriously impressed by The River, which he then reviewed favourably for Nature Medicine. He suggested that he would try to investigate the possible role played by his employers, the Institut Pasteur, whose head of virology in the 1950s had (according to my research) himself initiated polio vaccine trials in the French colonies of west Africa and west central Africa, trials that were contemporaneous with but separate from Koprowski’s. In December 1999 Wain-Hobson, to his great credit, gave me pages of notes from the interviews he had conducted with past workers at the Pasteur and its African satellites – interviews that had been conducted with the approval of the head of the Pasteur, and on Pasteur time. Some of these interviews were extremely telling, and included information confirming that some Pasteur polio vaccines, produced in the cells of African primates, had been given in African trials in the years 1957 to 1960. However, the notes did not provide final proof that the Pasteur had been making polio vaccines in the cells of either chimpanzees or sooty mangabeys, or that it had been making polio vaccines locally in primate cells in Africa. Shortly after this, Bill Hamilton tragically fell into a coma after his second visit to the Congo, and he died in early March 2000. This left Weiss and Wain-Hobson to organise the Royal Society meeting. Within weeks of Bill’s death it was apparent that Wain-Hobson had probably jumped ship (if indeed he ever was on my ship), and that he was now speaking with the same voice as Weiss. I still hoped and expected that the two of them would stage a free and fair conference, but in that I was disappointed.]

Far from everyone at the Royal Society meeting was convinced by Weiss’s version of events, or persuaded that Koprowski had won the debate. Immediately after the meeting and in the days following, many of those scientists present approached Walter, Brian Martin, Julian Cribb or myself to offer words of comfort and support The principal messages we heard were: (a) that the OPV theory was still entirely plausible and viable; (b) that they had not believed parts of what Koprowski had had to say, and (c) that people were shocked by the way that the meeting had been staged, and had turned out.

There was some further friction a year later, when the final papers for the meeting were being submitted for publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and Walter was informed that for legal reasons his speech could only be accepted if certain changes were made, which included the addition of a moderating sentence relating to John Maddox, the former editor of Nature, who also happened to be on the editorial board of Philosophical Transactions. Walter was far from happy, for the deletions that had been demanded all involved material that had already been published in the medical literature, but he reluctantly accepted the changes.

However, shortly after this he was approached by Simon Wain-Hobson, who urged him to separate his work on the contamination of cell cultures from “the Hooper thesis”, as he now referred to it. Wain-Hobson ended his letter to Walter: “Don’t nail or couple your story to Hooper’s. You are very different people.”

Walter immediately fired off a copy of “this impertinent note” to me. He added the following: “If I didn’t already feel a deep disgust for these people, I would fire off a letter the like of which he has probably never received. He’s pissed off at me for quoting him in a sentence from your book. More importantly, he’s just as slimy a bastard as the rest of the tribe that sat on the ‘other side’ of the auditorium.”

In 2002 a scientist from Robin Weiss’s school, University College London, interviewed Walter and then wrote a welcome reappraisal of his HeLa work that was published in one of the sister publications to Nature (the journal over which Robin Weiss exerts much of his influence). [John R. Masters; “HeLa cells 50 years on: the good, the bad and the ugly”; Nature Reviews/Cancer; 2002; 2; 315-319.] And then in 2004 Walter was lionised in the US, when he was awarded the Life Time Achievement Award from the Society for In Vitro Biology. Walter was undoubtedly pleased and touched by these belated accolades. However, he never changed sides, and his views never wavered on the origins of AIDS debate.

For me, he was always there as an adviser on tissue culture, as a moral touchstone, and as a friend. Indeed, both Walter and Jim have provided me (as well as the people who made “The Origins of AIDS” documentary) with some really significant support, notably intellectual and moral support, in the years following the Royal Society meeting.

I last met Walter in 2007, when he, Jim and I spent a happy evening together in western England. On this occasion we had more of an opportunity to discuss his broader work, and towards the end of the evening Walter was quite forthcoming about certain aspects of his earlier work with the US Chemical Corps and the Naval Biological Laboratory. He was the best sort of hero: one who starts off working for the bad guys, but who has the courage and decency to put this right.

Walter and Jim loved to go on lengthy cruises around the Seven Seas, and during one such trip last autumn Walter fell and broke his hip badly. He then spent weeks in hospital in Dubai, and although he flew back to San Francisco and began a long and arduous course of physiotherapy, he never fully recovered from the injury. We stayed in regular touch, and I spoke with him by phone just two days before his death. Although I always felt that by instinct, Walter was a conservative, I was overjoyed to find how positive he was about the way that President Obama was turning out. Besides this he bemoaned, as usual, the fact that my work had not yet got the widespread respect he said it deserved. “Why can’t they see that you’re right on this? What’s wrong with these people?”, he demanded for the umpteenth time. I told him to be patient, and not to worry, but I guess we both knew the answers to those rhetorical questions. By a strange coincidence, I completed a long letter to him on the morning of the 23rd, shortly before hearing of his death.

Sadly, Walter Nelson-Rees’s race is run. I salute him as one of the true heroes of American science: those who put careful research and principle before political expediency, personal advancement and profit. And if you’re watching up there, Walter, don’t worry. Just remember: those on the other side of the auditorium may still be cocky, but that doesn’t mean they’ve won. Stay tuned, old friend, stay tuned!

Ed Hooper, 25th January, 2009.