Dr. Keith Campbell, the British scientist whose research in cell biology led to the 1996 cloning of Dolly the sheep, died at 58. A clone is a fully functioning, living copy created from a single cell – not an egg or sperm – taken from an existing organism.
Before Campbell’s work, cloning complex creatures was impossible. Mature cells are specialized. Each contains the complete DNA code to form a new being, but most of this information is genetically turned off. When skin cells divide, they produce only skin cells. Liver cells produce only liver cells.
To create a clone, an adult cell has to be returned to a fetal state in which it is capable of producing all cell types. Campbell figured out how to do this – hence Dolly.
Dolly grew from a cell taken from the udder – the breast – of a 6-year-old ewe. Because a breast cell gave Dolly life, she was named for the well-endowed country singer Dolly Parton.
Campbell’s remarkable discovery gave him world renown, but as is often the case, fame doesn’t equate to happiness. According to media reports after the inquest into his death, Campbell was a “regular” – read excessive – drinker. When he died, he had three times the drunken-driving limit of alcohol in his system.
Campbell’s wife testified that he had already had a few drinks when he arrived home Oct. 5 2012. He drank more, “began to behave irrationally” and tried to pick a fight with her.
He held a knife to his throat and threatened to cut himself. He smashed a window. He said he was going to throw himself in the river. He retreated to the bedroom and ordered his wife to stay out until morning.
Mrs. Campbell said his behavior was “atypical,” but she had seen similar outbursts before. She left the house because it was “best not to engage.”
While cleaning up shattered glass, she glanced through the bedroom window and saw her husband hanging by a belt from a ceiling beam.
The coroner ruled Campbell’s death an accident, reasoning that while he intentionally suspended himself, he did so “expecting his wife to come into the bedroom and rescue him.”
This is nuts. Campbell committed suicide. I don’t think a single one of my American medical examiner colleagues would certify such a death accidental.
In discussing this case online, one of my colleagues said that because the standard for suicide in Britain is “certainty beyond a reasonable doubt,” some verdicts are “unusual.”
That explanation doesn’t work for me. I have no reasonable doubt that Dr. Campbell’s death was a suicide.
I know that in this country, medical examiners and coroners are inconsistent in their certifications of suicide. Even respected forensic textbooks differ in their recommendations.
But I’d never considered international differences or a point another colleague made: Because of differences in cultural standards, any comparison of suicide rates from one nation to another is likely to be flawed.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.