As an “interview” for the NIH Cell Biology Study Section in 1975, I went on a site visit at the University of Texas at Galveston for the review of a program-project grant application by Barbara Bowman and colleagues. She had come up with an ingenious assay of the viscosity of sputum from cystic fibrosis patients—a clinically critical parameter—based on the degree of inhibition of ciliary beating in the gills of oysters. I was fascinated by her insight and the superb quality of her science (her ingenious assay was essentially a kymographic report for the amount of polymerized actin in the sputum). At this site visit I met two future ASCB presidents who were collaborators on her project: T. C. Hsu and Bill Brinkley. Their key roles complemented Dr. Bowman's expertise perfectly—a triple-stranded helix. I can remember this site visit vividly, as if it happened last week. In any case, I apparently passed this trial run and was invited to join the Cell Biology Study Section in the fall of 1975. The chair at the time was the MIT embryologist Paul Gross, who was succeeded a year later by the Stanford biochemist David Korn and then, another year later, by the Purdue developmental biologist L. Dennis Smith.
At one of our meetings in 1977 we had gotten to chatting at dinner about the prospects of cloning a human. This conversation got more and more detailed and continued well after the table had been cleared. We talked about hormonal induction of ovulation, the risk to women so induced (I recall, proudly, that this obvious bioethics issue led our discussion), the low probability of getting an egg altogether, and the low success rate of somatic nuclear transfer as had been done at the time in nonhuman mammals. Other issues, such as a possible inherent incompatibility between a somatic nucleus and an enucleated egg, were also envisioned. Dennis Smith had done his Ph.D. with the amphibian-cloning pioneer Robert Briggs at Indiana University, and other members were experienced in culturing mammalian eggs and embryos, so this discussion was at a very high level. Of course, at this time (spring 1977) we did not know (much) about epigenetic marks on somatic DNA and (nothing) about how telomere length of the chromosomes in the donor nucleus might be a factor. Telomeres were only cytological entities at this time, though the discovery of the telomeric DNA repeat by Liz Blackburn and Joe Gall was just around the corner (only 11 months later).
When we convened the next morning to resume work Dr. Smith stunned us with an incredible announcement. He had just received a phone call from the Director of the NIH, Donald Fredrickson, who had asked him to have the Cell Biology Study Section deliberate on the scientific prospects of cloning a human being! To Fredrickson's amazement, Smith informed him that in fact the entire Cell Biology Study Section had held a lengthy, in-depth discussion of this very issue just the previous evening. After giving Dr. Fredrickson a fairly comprehensive overview of that discussion, he concluded by saying that, as of then, the cloning of a human was entirely possible but technically not very feasible. We later sensed that Dr. Fredrickson's request had arisen due to accounts in the press that such claims had been made, as well as perhaps media attention to a general-audience book on human cloning that had just appeared. In any case, we were not asked to follow up with a written report, and that was the last any of us heard about this inquiry.