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Autopsy Results Pending in Death of Scientist

The Nation

Inquiry: Body found in Mississippi River is believed to be that of missing biologist.

December 22, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Autopsy results were pending Friday on a body found in the Mississippi River that is believed to be that of renowned Harvard University molecular biologist Don C. Wiley, who was last seen Nov. 16 in Memphis.

The Shelby County, Tenn., medical examiner's office said Friday that more forensics work remains. "All aspects of the investigation are going forward, but we have not progressed sufficiently to warrant the release of information," a spokeswoman for Dr. O.C. Smith said.

A wallet on the body contained Wiley's identification. The body was found Thursday about 320 miles south of Memphis, snagged on a tree in a log-filled area of the river alongside a hydroelectric plant at Vidalia, La., Memphis police spokeswoman Latanya Able said.

The flow of the Mississippi River is capable of carrying a body that far in about 2 1/2 days, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Wiley's disappearance has baffled his family, associates and police, and triggered speculation that, because of his expertise on deadly germs, he could have been targeted by terrorists while attending a medical conference in Memphis.

His unlocked car was found on a bridge crossing the Mississippi, not far from where he had attended an annual meeting of the scientific advisory board of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. With no sign of foul play, police speculated that he may have committed suicide.

But those who knew him said suicide was unlikely, given the strength of his family life and the accolades he had garnered as a scientist.

Those who were with him just hours before his disappearance said he was in good spirits.

"He was anxious to see his family the next day," said Dr. Patricia K. Donahoe, chief of pediatric surgery at Harvard Medical School, who was also at the conference.

"I did not see any indication of depression or anything that would have led to any self-inflicted injury on his part," she said Friday. "He was engaged with his young children . . . and was clearly at the top of his game, scientifically."

Police are still investigating. "We are somewhat relieved that authorities in Louisiana have located a body, and now it's our job to be patient and see what is revealed by the autopsy," Able said.

Wiley's specialty was the molecular structure of infectious diseases, including AIDS, influenza and the Ebola virus. He won the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award, considered by many to be a precursor to the Nobel Prize.

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