“BIOHAZARDS AT HARVARD,” warns the cover of the June 8, 1976 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
“Scientists are on the brink of undertaking revolutionary genetic research which creates new life forms,” the subtitle reads, “and dangers which the public knows little about.”
The story, which helped spark controversy that would consume Cambridge for months, marked the emergence of genetic engineering as not only a scientific tool but also a source of public panic.
Today, the practice of cutting and combining pieces of DNA is used not just in Cambridge’s biology classrooms but in the world’s crops and cutting-edge medical treatments as well. But before Harvard could build a laboratory to do it, University scientists had to overcome entrenched fears that this form of genetic engineering — recombinant DNA technology — would produce the “dangers” that the Boston Phoenix had advertised.
“No Harvard official can guarantee either the safety of the facility or the experiments done in them,” the article claims. “In fact, several officials are convinced that some microorganisms will escape out of the containment facility.”
Cambridge Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci, whose animosity towards Harvard is well-documented (he once proposed to repave Harvard Yard as a parking lot) quickly capitalized on the controversy surrounding recombinant DNA and called for a public hearing on the safety of the research.
“We may make a creation that slips beyond control and turns around to destroy the creator,” he wrote in a press release announcing the hearings. “An extremely small microorganism can be just as destructive as a full scale monster.”
Curious residents flooded City Hall on the day of the hearing, June 23, 1976. It began with Cambridge Public High School students singing “This Land is Your Land” and included testimony from Harvard and MIT professors and deans. And, according to former Harvard professor Walter “Wally” Gilbert ’53, who was present for the hearing, featured one City Hall official dressed as the American flag.
The Cambridge City Council met the following month amid “packed to overflowing” crowds and voted to impose a three-month moratorium on recombinant DNA research, which was later extended for another three months. The Council also created the Cambridge Experimentation Review Board, which convened a group of citizens to recommend policy about recombinant DNA research for the city.
In the following months, researchers at Harvard and MIT waged a first-of-its-kind public relations campaign aimed at convincing a skeptical public — as well as skeptical colleagues — that their research was safe.
Gilbert, who would share the 1980 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for DNA research, remembers the debate playing out “inside the University in several meetings” before spilling out into the public.
“During the moratorium,” he says, “we held meetings with Cambridge people out on the streets, set up counters, brought representatives of the city council to the laboratories.”
One group “thought moving genes from one species to another was violating God’s law in some deep sense,” he says. “Another group of scientists thought our ability to move pieces of DNA around from one organism to another was a perfectly natural part of the experimental procedure.”
Professors debated the risks of the research on radio shows and in front of crowds at the Cambridge Unitarian Church and in the Harvard Science Center. A Crimson article from the time reported on “pro-con booths” at the Mayor’s Marketplace in Kendall Square, one that supported and another that opposed the research.
The Safety for Cambridge Residents Committee even claimed that the consequences of this research could be worse than a nuclear explosion.
“In case of an accident in nuclear weapons testing the end would at least be swift and merciful to the Cambridge residents,” the Committee wrote in a letter to the editor of the Cambridge Chronicle, “whereas, with DNA testing the end might very well be lingering and painful.”
Ultimately, the city allowed the research to proceed.
The Cambridge Experimentation Review Board returned its verdict to the Cambridge City Council in January 1977 after hearing 75 hours of testimony from at least 35 people and 25 hours of deliberations. It found, unanimously, that the research could safely take place under guidelines only slightly more stringent than those issued by the National Institutes of Health.
In February, almost all of the Board’s recommendations became law through a unanimous vote of the City Council. Even Vellucci, who was “irascible in defeat,” The Crimson reported, voted to allow the research.
George M. Church, a genetics professor at Harvard, remembers participating in the recombinant DNA research “from day one,” when Gilbert was his “adviser.”
He describes Vellucci as having “an eighth-grade education.” However, he says that fear of the dangers of recombinant DNA “was overblown and under blown at the same time” and remains a staunch proponent of thorough regulation.
“I think they completely ignored the possibility of having willful manipulation of the DNA, bioterrorism,” he says. “Almost all of it was about accidental release into the environment.”
Today, the significance of what recombinant DNA research helped unleash is hard to overstate.“Almost every aspect of medicine is being impacted,” Church says. “We were entering an era of gene therapies, which are helpful not only for rare diseases,” he says, “but also for common diseases like aging.”
“It was a revolution.”
— Associate Magazine Editor Graham R. Weber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.