By Eileen Garred
April 15, 1991 12:00 PM

It was a discovery that would rock the scientific community and severely dent some lofty reputations—yet for a while the young researcher who made it was left a pariah in her own profession. Only now has recognition finally come to Margot O’Toole, a courgeous 38-year-old immunologist who braved the condemnation of her peers in order to fight for what she knew to be the truth.

The saga began five years ago when O’Toole, then a postdoctoral fellow at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology cancer-research lab, was trying to replicate an experiment performed by her supervisor, Brazilian-born immunologist Thereza Imanishi-Kari—a standard procedure in the validation of any scientific discovery. Imanishi-Kari’s findings were potentially a major step in discovering how the body fights disease because they suggested that transplanted genes could stimulate a recipient’s immune system.

But after almost a year’s work, O’Toole couldn’t duplicate her supervisor’s results. And when O’Toole reported the disparity to Imanishi-Kari, she was simply told to stop trying because, O’Toole says, “I was supposedly wasting materials by doing the experiment and coming up with the wrong answers.” Shortly thereafter she was demoted to breeding lab mice. Then, in the course of researching the heredity of one particular mouse, O’Toole consulted lab notebooks used by Imanishi-Kari and made an astonishing discovery: The data recorded there didn’t support Imanishi-Kari’s conclusions either. “I knew [the conclusions] had been fudged,” says O’Toole. “Finally the world made sense again to me.”

In fact, her world was about to make less sense than ever. On June 16, 1986, two months after a paper based largely on Imanishi-Kari’s research was published in the scientific journal Cell, O’Toole met with Dr. David Baltimore, the Nobel laureate who was senior coauthor of the paper, and asked him to retract it. Baltimore, who has since left MIT to become president of Rockefeller University in New York City, refused, later branding O’Toole “a disgruntled postdoctoral fellow.” Stripped of her research responsibilities and receiving no support from her superiors. O’Toole felt compelled to quit MIT. But word of her confrontation with Baltimore quickly circulated, and she was turned down everywhere she applied for a new job. “I was devastated,” she says. “I had tried for so long to become a scientist, only to find out it was just a board game.”

With their two incomes reduced to one, O’Toole and her husband. Peter Brodeur, 38, an assistant professor of pathology at Tufts University, rented out their four-bedroom home in the suburb of Newton to help meet their mortgage payments. They and their son, Brendan, now 9, moved in with O’Toole’s mother, Betty, a junior high school teacher living in Brookline. (They now have two other children, Dylan, 3, and Paul, 9 months.)

While Margot helped pay the bills by answering telephones for her brother’s moving company, she despaired that she could ever return to science. Irish-born Betty O’Toole, 65, anguished with her daughter (“It was like seeing an eagle flying, and then someone clipped her wings,” she says) but never wavered in her belief that Margot had been right to take on the scientific establishment. “I don’t believe in boats that don’t rock,” says Betty. “And believe you me, if you want to rock a boat, get an O’Toole.”

Born in Dublin, Margot was 14 when her father, James, brought his family from Ireland to Brookline. There he joined Boston University as a professor of science communications. He died in 1973 but, says Betty, left his four children with a familial willingness to say no to authority. After graduating from Brandeis University in 1973, Margot earned a Ph.D. in cellular immunology from Tufts. She joined the MIT lab in 1985 and a year later saw her career run aground on Imanishi-Kari’s flawed research. (Her refusal to tolerate injustice had already been demonstrated in 1985, when she intervened in the beating of a restaurant worker by a Boston police officer and later gave testimony that led to his suspension for a year.)

During the next five years, Baltimore and his colleagues continued to insist that the paper’s conclusions were supportable. But the episode did not end there. Walter Stewart, a self-appointed watchdog of scientific inquiry at the National Institutes of Health, obtained a copy of the disputed lab notes from O’Toole and brought the matter to the attention of Michigan Rep. John Dingell, the powerful chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. During three subsequent congressional hearings, Dingell was deluged with letters from scientists accusing him of conducting a witch hunt. However, Secret Service tests of the ink and paper used in Ishimani-Kari’s notes indicated that she had later inserted crucial data to cover up the original fabrications. At long last O’Toole was gloriously vindicated. Last month an NIH draft report censured the research, criticized Baltimore and called O’Toole’s actions “heroic.”

O’Toole, moreover, has resumed her career as a scientist, working as a cancer researcher at the Genetics Institute in Cambridge, Mass. Her dismay with Baltimore, who has retracted the infamous paper but has yet to apologize to her, has softened. “He is like a tragic Shakespearean figure,” she says, “someone quite brilliant brought down by his inability to admit he was wrong.”

—Eileen Garred, Sue Avery Brown in Newton