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Biomedicine's Bionic Man

Among the Nation's Most Distinguished--and Controversial--Scientists, Caltech's David Baltimore Now Faces the Dual Challenge of Leading a Premier Research University and Vanquishing AIDS

September 28, 1997|Robert Lee Hotz | Robert Lee Hotz is a Times science writer

For a glimpse into the soul of David Baltimore, the curious need look no farther than the scientist's official portrait, which he chose in lieu of the customary oil painting to hang outside the boardroom of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, here at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

The photograph, taken last year as Baltimore's political fortunes turned, is of note both for what the artist saw and what Baltimore as art patron chose to preserve: an off-balance figure in black--shoulders hunched and hands shoved in his pockets--balanced between stark shadow and bright light. It is a portrait of someone who might be emerging from the darkness or, just as easily, being engulfed by it. The eyes are sad, the eyebrows heavy and arched with skepticism. Yet he seems amused, perhaps by the studied ambiguity of his own image.

It could easily be a portrait of Faust, the scholar of legend who sold his soul for the sum of all human knowledge. But the ambitions working within 59-year-old Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, perhaps the most influential biologist of his generation, are more complex than a raw appetite for new information.

Among the youngest biologists--at age 37--to win the Nobel Prize, his formal, somber manner often makes him seem among the oldest. A self-made mandarin of science, Baltimore's practiced elegance frames a fierce pride and a sometimes brutal intellect, softened only by his insistence that professional criticism be leavened by personal respect.

As a scientist, he displays an almost casual brilliance. He takes the broadest possible view of what others might see as narrow questions. A subtle administrator, he is politically adept, with a talent for building unconventional research groups. As a policymaker, he pursues his aims absent self-doubt and with an autocratic intelligence that leads even friends to fret about his arrogance.

Ambitious, pragmatic, aggressive, Baltimore nonetheless appears to prize principle above his own advancement--or even professional survival. He suspended the research that eventually earned him a Nobel prize in order to devote himself to antiwar protests, coming within a hairbreadth of losing his race for the prize. And despite pride in his own rectitude, he more recently weathered the appearance of fraud for almost a decade rather than abandon a colleague accused of falsifying research data.

Now he is assuming the leadership of Caltech--one of the world's most highly regarded research universities--at a time when the university is reassessing its character and Baltimore himself is having second thoughts about his own. The appointment of David Baltimore marks the latest step in the public rehabilitation of a man who, in 1991 resigned from the presidency of Rockefeller University in New York under pressure from colleagues and members of Congress.

For a time, Baltimore faced the ruin of almost everything he valued: his reputation forprobity, his position as an academic leader and the respect of his peers. Then, in barely a year, he was exonerated formally of any stigma of scientific impropriety by a federal appeals board, named to coordinate the federal effort to develop an AIDS vaccine and, most recently, appointed president of Caltech.

It is a breathtaking reversal in public fortunes.

"It is even more breathtaking," Baltimore says, "to live through it."


Given his formidable public presence, Baltimore in private is unexpectedly genial. He is a considerate dinner companion with an intimate knowledge of the fashionable restaurants, espresso bars and basement cigar dens of Boston's gentrified Italian North End. He is particular about wines, favors his single malt whiskey with a single ice cube and drives a late-model Audi.

Like a number of his generation's biologists, who benefited from the early 1980s boom in biotechnology stocks, science has made Baltimore a relatively wealthy man. He has been an active consultant.

With his wife, Dr. Alice Huang, he shares a luxury duplex condominium on Union Wharf, which has a commanding view of Boston Harbor and is only a few hundred yards from the berth of the USS Constitution. The meticulous decor of their Boston condo underscores his interest in the arts. A free-standing glass sculpture by Rhode Island artist Howard Ben Tre rises at the top of a spiral staircase. A large scarlet Chinese ceremonial drum, purchased on a trip to Singapore, dominates the living room. The couple also owns vacation homes in Montana and Woods Hole, Mass. At Caltech, they will live in the president's official residence. (Their daughter, Teak, a recent Yale graduate, lives in New York.)

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