The Rise and Fall of the Cloning King

Woo Suk Hwang led the world in human cloning and became a national hero in South Korea. Now he's a scientific pariah. Inside his demise

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AHN YOUNG-JOON / AP

HUMILIATION: At a packed Dec. 16 press event, Hwang withdrew a key research paper

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Hwang claims it took six months to recover from the disaster. But it also might be that Hwang's team couldn't recover quickly enough and began taking shortcuts to fill the gap. Under pressure from the government and the university, and with a deadline looming for publication in one of the world's most prestigious journals, the temptation to stretch the truth might have been irresistible. "I can only speculate that Dr. Hwang was driven by ambition. He may have thought he could manipulate the data to secure research funding and compensate for his actions with follow-up results," says Ki Jung Kim, a political scientist at Seoul's Yonsei University. In short, fudge it now, fix it later.

It wouldn't be the first time. In 1996 chemists from the University of Utah claimed they had discovered "cold fusion." They hadn't, it turned out, but a combination of ambition, fear of competition and pressure from the university led them to announce the discovery before they had any proof.

In Hwang's case, it may be that mistakes were made or frauds committed without his knowledge, but as head of the research team and lead author of the published results, he's stuck with the responsibility. No matter what the investigation concludes about his two other landmark papers, Hwang will be remembered for the fiasco that embarrassed his university and the South Korean government--and deepened the public's unease and ambivalence about stem cells and human cloning.

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