It was the spring of 1977, and New Englanders had monsters on their minds. In Dover, Massachusetts, three high-school boys spotted a creature with orange eyes and a melon-shaped head. Meanwhile, in Hollis, New Hampshire, a father driving with his two sons encountered a nine-foot-tall hairy behemoth.
Arnold Vellucci, mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, took notice when the Boston Herald-American reported these mysterious sightings in side-by-side articles. But he wasn’t worried about aliens or Bigfoot, the usual suspects in paranormal sightings. Vellucci worried instead that the peculiar beings had escaped from a molecular biology lab at either Harvard or MIT.
On the same day that the Herald-American articles were published, Vellucci penned a letter to Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences. Vellucci politely requested that the NAS investigate the matter. “I would hope as well,” he added, “that you might check to see whether or not these ‘strange creatures,’ (should they in fact exist) are in any way connected to recombinant DNA experiments taking place in the New England area.”
Vellucci, who had served Cambridge as an elected official for decades, made it his ongoing mission to protect the largely blue-collar town against the perceived evils of its two legendary universities. The sometimes tense town-gown relations provided endless fodder for his enthusiastic politicking.
Recombinant DNA research was a particular sore spot for Vellucci. Just months before, the city council had voted down his motion to ban from Cambridge all but the most benign uses of the controversial technique.At that time, recombinant DNA technology — splicing together DNA from disparate species — was still in its infancy. Most scientists saw enormous potential for the technique, and some believed that the research should continue largely unhindered. Others, who had qualms about its safety and ethicality, advocated a moratorium of some kind — whether voluntary or imposed, temporary or indefinite — while scientists, policymakers, and citizens muddled through on what to allow, what to regulate, what to ban, and how.
The issue flared up in Cambridge when Harvard announced plans to build a special laboratory for recombinant DNA experiments that were considered especially risky. Scientists generally believed that the risk level of an experiment was governed by the kinds of DNA being joined. The weirder the chimera, the more people worried. Splicing together DNA from two innocuous species of bacteria was judged safe. Mixing in the genes of a bacterium with those from so-called lower animals — flies, frogs and fish, for example — aroused more suspicion.
The proposed Harvard lab had still more controversial intentions: among other things, they planned to use human DNA in their experiments. This research — which would create stretches of double helix that were part human, part microbe — made many people very uncomfortable.
Scientists agreed that these experiments should be housed in special labs with extraordinary safety precautions — just in case. No researcher in his right mind foresaw nine-foot-tall hairy beasts, but some worried about inadvertently creating disease-causing bacteria that might then escape from the lab.
Even within Harvard, the proposed lab was hotly debated. Many feared that the building chosen to house the lab was too decrepit, infested with ants and cockroaches that might become infected with dubious bacteria and then skitter off into the city.
Others stressed the dangers of tinkering with nature. “I am frankly terrified,” one professor wrote, “at the idea of playing evolution, because it is an exceedingly dangerous game whose rules we will not know until it is too late.”
Another professor thought those fears were unwarranted. “[T]he kinds of recombinants we may produce in the laboratory are not altogether novel,” he wrote, “but have already been tested in the crucible of natural selection.” He concluded that “[t]he picture of a novel superplague…seems to me extraordinarily unlikely.”
Mayor Vellucci, meanwhile, was outraged. At first, he and the city council banned the facility outright. He then assembled a committee to evaluate the matter, likely hoping that it would find a way to keep recombinant DNA research out of Cambridge for good. Not a single molecular biologist served on the committee, but the members worked hard to educate themselves, making an earnest effort to grapple with the nuances of the controversy.
The Cambridge committee became a sort of miniature version of the broader national debate over recombinant DNA. In the end, they defaulted to the bureaucratic end product of that national conversation—the newly drafted recommendations of the National Institutes of Health. For an extra measure of comfort, they added some stricter provisions. Finally, they funneled these guidelines into an ordinance, and put it before the city council for a vote.
Vellucci tacked on an amendment that would shackle scientists, forbidding almost all kinds of recombinant DNA research, but he was voted down, 6 to 3. The council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance without Vellucci’s amendment.Perhaps when he read of the orange-eyed melon-headed beast, Vellucci was hoping for a sensational “I told you so.” But NAS president Handler — himself an accomplished biochemist — offered Vellucci no redemption.
The NAS could not afford to investigate the findings, Handler wrote back, but would be glad to analyze samples from the mysterious beings if they became available. He reassured the distraught mayor that the scientists in his area were meticulous — “that none of their creations have escaped and that all are accounted for.” Handler could surely feel confident writing this, as he had received a letter on the subject from a Brandeis biologist who wrote, “we have kept a careful record of all monsters created here at Brandeis and none have escaped.”
“Presumably,” Handler concluded his letter to Vellucci, “the bizarre creatures in the Cambridge area are among the rarer specimens of Academicus americanus, Cambridgiensis. They are usually identified by their green rucksacks and bear close watching as they may be wolves with sheepskins.”