Tales of S.Korea Scientist Tumble Off Book Shelves
By Jon Herskovitz and Lee Jin-joo
SEOUL — South Korean publishers rushed to put books on celebrated scientist Hwang Woo-suk on store shelves only to find him embroiled in a scandal and their products becoming one of the biggest flops of the holiday season.
Hwang was once called the pride of South Korea for bringing the country to the forefront of stem cell and cloning research. Publishers aiming to cash in on his fame put out 16 books on him — 10 of which were children’s books.
Most of the books made their way to store shelves in the past year. In past days, however, those same books were headed back to publishers because demand dried up when charges surfaced that Hwang’s team fabricated data.
“We started taking children’s books on Hwang off the shelves just before Christmas,” said Kim Yea-won, a clerk at major book seller Kyobo. “Nobody wants them now.”
Books for children are a popular gift for Christmas in South Korea and one book timed for release with the holidays was “The Beautiful Life Path of Hwang Woo-suk.”
It was released on December 20, just a few days after Seoul National University started to probe work produced by Hwang’s team after two collaborators said a paper they published in May 2005 for the U.S. periodical Science was based on fabricated data.
The book for pre-teens was meant to be an inspiring tale of a humble national hero it called “South Korea’s No. 1 scientist.”
“After Hwang announced his achievement through ‘Science’ magazine, people from all over the world invited him to speak. When they sent him a first-class seat, he politely refused saying he would ride economy class so he could bring more of his junior researchers with him to see the world instead,” reads one passage in the book.
Hwang had rock-star like fame in South Korea just a few months ago thanks to the May 2005 paper on producing tailored embryonic stem cells that could one day be used to grow genetically specific tissue to treat ailments such as severe spinal cord injuries.
Time magazine said the world’s first cloned dog produced by Hwang’s team was one of the most amazing inventions of the year.
South Koreans reacted with shame and sorrow last Friday when an investigation panel said data in the 2005 paper on tailored stem cells was intentionally fabricated and Hwang should shoulder a large portion of the blame.
“Before the news of Hwang’s fabricated research, we were selling 50 to 60 books on him everyday,” said Jang Kwang-jae, an official with Dongsuh Books, a publisher of children’s books including “Children, Let’s Learn from Hwang Woo-suk’s Success.”
“There are no longer orders for books on Hwang,” Jang said.
Jang said Hwang’s research has made it into textbooks used by South Korean school children. Publishers are waiting for the results of investigations into his work before they start to think about printing revisions.
On Tuesday, the investigation panel at Seoul National University said it was conducting DNA testing on specimens that were part of a 2004 paper from Hwang’s team on cloning the first human embryos for research.
It said on Monday it expected results next week on DNA testing that should prove whether there is any truth to the claims Hwang’s team produced tailored embryonic stem cells.
“We placed a few of the children’s books on Dr. Hwang in a special section we have on Korean national heroes. You won’t find any books on him there now,” said another clerk at Kyobo.