these scientists regarding the resumption of genetic experimentation, which they had voluntarily stopped six months before. Yet despite this difficult and commendable achievement, the succeeding episodes of this real-life drama rather suddenly took a turn for the worse. Laypersons, scientists, and legislators, on one side or the other, engaged in an angry struggle over the resumption of research. Numerous hearings, forums, and town meetings were held. In townships, states, and Congress, bills governing laboratory research were drafted and debated at length, and injunctions to forbid all such experimentation were sought in the courts. Half a decade of recriminations and anxiety passed before society and biomedical science patched up the largest rents in their mutually beneficial entente. Why did this happen? Could it have been avoided? Can we be sure that such a threat to such a sensitive relationship will not happen again?

The objective of this essay is to reconstruct, from an abundant record, 2 the story of the climactic event of the first act, the Asilomar conference of 1975. The subject should be viewed in the broadest context; therefore, we must zoom in on it from the past, using a wide-angle lens.


In 1944, two noteworthy but unrelated events occurred that precipitated important changes in biomedical research. One was a scientific achievement, the other a political decision. The scientific achievement was the discovery of the chemistry of genes. When the first cautious report was absorbed and accepted, it snapped into focus genetics research of the past 80 years (if one counted the careful notes the monk Gregor Mendel put aside in 1865). Following a much earlier trail of research, especially a clue that different strains of pneumococcus were able to exchange certain characteristics like coat appearance and virulence, Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarty at the Rockefeller Institute established that the exchanger was a sticky macromolecule or polymer made up of sugar, bases, and phosphoric acid, known as deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. The necessary confirmation that their “transforming principle” was, indeed, the stuff of the gene came eight years later with observations that when viruses (bacteriophages) infected bacteria only, the viral DNA entered the host and there led to expression of the complete virus.3

The symbolic political event in 1944 was a directive from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to his chief of wartime research, Vannevar Bush, to find a way to continue federal financing of medical and other scientific research, which proved so successful after the nation 's laboratories had been mobilized for war in what historian Hunter Dupree

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