Dolly's dad comes to town Clone: The embryologist has barely had a moment's peace since the announcement. Here he receives polite, applause. But no stomping of feet.

March 11, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Dr. Ian Wilmut, walking emblem of a Brave New World, was introduced in Baltimore yesterday to polite applause -- as if he'd just bogeyed the fourth hole at Augusta.

About 100 scientists kept their seats in a second-floor conference room at the Hyatt Regency and clapped for a few seconds. The ovation did not rattle the crystal beads on the two chandeliers nor shudder the water in an array of crystal pitchers. No one whooped.

And so in this dignified manner went day one of the two-day conference on the Impact of Molecular Biology on Animal Health and Production Research, which happened to include by accident of timing a man whose success in sheep cloning was hailed two weeks ago as a stunning breakthrough. The soft-spoken Wilmut made page one of every major newspaper on the planet.

Wilmut, a Scottish embryologist, was scheduled as a conference speaker months ago, well before the world saw the sweet, pale face of Dolly, a sheep born in Midlothian, Scotland, on the afternoon of July 5 to a mother but no father. She is the first mammal to be cloned using cells from an adult of the species, rather than an embryo, which had been done before. It so happens Wilmut's first trip abroad after the monumental announcement brought him first to Baltimore for this conference. Imagine the excitement.

Or not.

"It certainly hasn't been a disruptive influence," said Dr. Anthony P. Ricketts, a Pfizer Inc. pharmaceutical researcher and master of understatement. Sipping coffee during an afternoon break, he expressed surprise at the mundaneness of it all.

"I expected more paparazzi," he said.

Conference chairman Dr. Lawrence B. Schook, who heads the department of veterinary pathobiology at the University of Minnesota, said the proceedings were going along much as one would expect at any such conference. Wilmut was another speaker on the slate, delivering a report on his historic work under a somewhat less than electrifying title: "The Role of Nuclear Transfer in Biotechnology and Agriculture."

Dr. Calvin Keeler, a professor of animal and food science at the University of Delaware, allowed that Wilmut's presence "certainly makes it more exciting. ... It's unusual that you attend a conference where you get such breaking research news."

Keeler hastened to point out that Wilmut's work -- which prompted calls from the White House and the Vatican to bar human cloning -- is only one of many facets of work in molecular biology that has an impact on research in agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

True. But with all due respect to its presenter we cannot recall the Vatican's scrambling to issue an announcement on, say, "Prospects for Efficient, Lean, Fast-Growing Transgenic Swine," scheduled for the late afternoon conference session yesterday.

Wilmut arrived in the United States Saturday after a grueling two weeks in the international spotlight, an unlikely place to find this low-key, 52-year-old whom the New York Times described as the "least sensational of scientists." With plans to address Congress later this week, he will be in the United States until Friday.

Wilmut's laboratory at Roslin Institute in Midlothian was besieged by camera crews and reporters, many armed with hostile questions about the ethical and moral implications of his research. Folks who couldn't get through in person or on the phone sent electronic mail. Wilmut said he received 400 e-mail messages, the majority of them supportive. He met with members of Parliament and had what he called a "smashing lunch" with Fay Weldon, a British novelist who wrote "The Cloning of Joanna May" in 1989.

It appeared Wilmut had come to Baltimore for a little peace and quiet. Conference organizers set aside a hotel room with a few dozen seats for a press conference late Sunday afternoon. The event, as it turned out, could have been held in a Ford Bronco. Five reporters and five TV cameras showed up.

"I was expecting ethicists and animal rights people" to bring a crowd to the press briefing, said conference director Mary Ann Brown. None appeared.

A handful of reporters and three television crews showed up for a second brief news conference yesterday afternoon at the Hyatt. Wilmut, a slight man with a blond beard and bright blue eyes, stood before a small bouquet of microphones, answering many of the same questions he faced Sunday.

Does he think about the morality of his work? "Of course," he said gently. "Every day of the week."

He repeated he opposes human cloning, however far in the future it might be, because "it would make me very sad. Anything that treats people as less than individual would be very sad."

Asked how he feels about all the hoopla his announcement brought, Wilmut said part of him is enjoying the excitement, relishing a chance to meet new people.

"Part of me looks forward to the time when it ends," he said.

Looks like that part of you can rest easy, doc. Welcome to Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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