The weird science of Richard Seed His plan to clone human beings shocked the world -- needlessly, it turns out, Dr. Seed specializes in visions, not results.

Ideas: Science/technology

May 17, 1998|By Steve Rhodes | Steve Rhodes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chicago -- Richard Seed is a busy man these days. Busy hatching plans. Out on the lecture circuit. Developing grand theories. Thinking.

Or so he would have you believe.

More likely, he is spending a lot of time at his home in Riverside, west of Chicago. He apparently has no job, and he isn't making any money from his much-discussed cloning lab. There is no cloning lab. Just the occasional call from a reporter wanting to know how it's going.

But Seed will not be cloning anyone. The wild ride he's been on since December is over. Richard Seed has not only been through the media's spin cycle, he's been through its rinse.

Richard Seed, it turns out, is an eccentric old man whose few brilliant ideas remain unexecuted -- or at best executed by someone else. Human cloning is just the latest to make the list.

Seed, a 69-year-old Harvard-trained physicist, burst into the planet's consciousness about five months ago after telling a reproductive technologies symposium here that he intended to begin cloning human beings. His announcement, though, came not as a panel member or presenter. From the audience, he stood up to speak during a question-and-answer session.

"He was sort of stumbling through his notes," recalls Lori Andrews, a Chicago-Kent College of Law professor who moderated the symposium. "He got up and said he'd already started organizing to begin human cloning.

"He said, 'Clones are fun.' He didn't give much of an explanation. People tended to dismiss him."

Until January, that is. A month after the symposium, National Public Radio broadcast an interview with Seed, and suddenly he was a sensation. In the media frenzy that followed, Seed's pronouncement drew even President Clinton into the human cloning debate. He called the plan "profoundly troubling" and proposed a five-year ban on cloning.

Promptly, at least seven bills banning human cloning began making their way through Congress; another three dozen bills were introduced in state legislatures (only California actually succeeded in passing legislation). Overseas, the response was even more dramatic, as 19 European nations banned human cloning.

Clearly Seed's idea had struck a nerve. His startling claim came in the wake of the remarkable news about Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep. His threat to take his technology wherever he could proceed without interference seemed to give him more credence. But never were the details made clear. It turned out there were no details.

It wasn't the first time Seed had captured attention with an idea that seemed plausible, if not practical.

Andrews, for instance, first met him in 1980 at the first international congress of in vitro fertilization in West Germany. "He talked about technology that seemed far-fetched at the time, and it's all come true," says Andrews.

Seed also had a track record that, while marred, showed that he could generate venture capital, institutional support, and publicity. In 1984, the Wall Street Journal profiled a business Seed and his brother had begun:

"Richard Seed, a nuclear physicist turned biomedical engineer, has developed a technique for transferring fertilized embryos from one woman to another," the story reported. "His brother, Randolph, a surgeon, did the early clinical research on the method. Their work resulted last month in the first successful embryo transfer."

The company managed to raise millions of dollars in a public stock offering. Then it failed, with no measureable success.

It was just another in a series of misfires indicating that Seed perhaps missed his true calling as a futurist. In the 1950s and 1960s, he had dabbled in semiconductors and lasers. In the 1970s, he turned to biology. His Embryo Transplant Corp. failed in its attempt to create high-yield "supercows" whose milk could feed the planet.

So Seed, who likes to call himself a "near genius," remains an idea man whose time never seems to come.

In the wake of the cloning uproar, his public image deteriorated into caricature. Two of his children told reporters their dad was "nuts." One of his two former wives told of his plan to be cryogenically preserved -- and her counterplan to kill him off by not paying the electric bill.

These days Seed doesn't seem interested in talking about cloning at all -- unless, he suggests, he gets paid for the interview.

But cloning, he says, is old news anyway. He's got other things on his mind. "Most of them are too complicated for the reader, too advanced," he says. "I lecture to the wind."

Those in the field haven't forgotten him, though. Lori Andrews says her Chicago symposium is becoming the Woodstock of the reproductive technology field: Far more people than possible claim to have been there for Seed's announcement.

So where will Richard Seed turn up next? Perhaps at an anti-poverty conference. His new passion, he says, is a theory that poverty is a mental health condition.

It seems someone once remarked to him that "you gotta be crazy" to live in a public housing project. Seed took this to heart. "I thought a lot about it," he says. "He was right. Anybody who was mentally sound would get out.

"The limitation, it turns out, is mental," he explains. "They're ill. They're seriously mentally ill."

This from a man who still claims to have a "five- to eight-person team" standing by, just in case a generous investor and an infertile couple knock on his door.

The irony doesn't escape Seed.

"Everybody's crazy," he says. "I even suspect myself."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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