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Last Updated

22 Jun 2003

Source: Houston Chronicle, June 13, 2003

Colleagues defend Tech professor accused in missing-plague case

Associated Press

LUBBOCK -- During a 30-year career that took him to laboratories and impoverished countries around the world, Thomas Butler probed the mysteries of infectious diseases including relapsing fever, typhoid and, most of all, the plague.

Butler wrote extensively about the swift-spreading plague, having seen its brutality firsthand while serving in the Navy in Vietnam.

Fellow researchers marvel at Butler's expertise on the disease. They also describe him as a proud and stubborn man who clashed with superiors and sometimes ignored paperwork requirements.

Nothing, however, prepared them for Butler's arrest in January on charges of fabricating a report that 30 vials of the potentially deadly plague bacteria had disappeared from his Texas Tech University laboratory.

Butler pleaded innocent last month to felony charges and awaits trial in federal court. In the meantime, he is prohibited from visiting his lab and may be banned from working with plague in this country.

That prospect frightens many of his colleagues, who say Butler may be absent-minded but he's not a criminal.

"You've just knocked out an exceptional person," said Dr. William B. Greenough, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore who has known Butler since the early 1970s. "There is no dissent about his character or his work among his colleagues."

Butler was virtually unknown outside the world of infectious disease researchers until January, when he told Tech officials that vials of plague samples were missing from a rack on a lab table in the school's health sciences complex.

Within hours, dozens of federal agents descended on Lubbock to investigate and search for the vials. The search ended when Butler gave FBI agents a written statement saying that he had actually destroyed them before reporting them missing, according to court documents.

In a federal indictment issued in April, federal prosecutors charged that Butler smuggled plague samples from Tanzania and illegally transported them within the country and overseas. They also charged him with lying to FBI agents about the disappearance of the samples.

Butler is on paid leave from Tech, where he is chief of the infectious diseases division of the department of internal medicine at the university's health sciences center. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Butler, the son of a pharmacology professor, earned his undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins University and a medical degree from Vanderbilt. He returned to Johns Hopkins for his internship and residency before entering the Navy, spending a year each in Vietnam and Taiwan.

Military service was followed by a fellowship in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins and four years in Bangladesh, studying diarrheal diseases.

"He's an absolutely straight shooter, has never fudged any data and takes all appropriate precautions," said Greenough, who has hired Butler twice. "He's a first-class scientist, a first-class person. He's highly intelligent, and he has a stubborn streak in him. You have to in this line of work."

Butler also taught at the University of Saigon, Johns Hopkins and Case Western Reserve University and spent a year as a visiting scientist at an institute in Sweden.

Information that has surfaced since the indictment, some obtained through open-records requests with the university, indicates that Butler's career had suffered several setbacks shortly before the missing-vials incident.

In May 2001, a Tech panel shut down Butler's part of a project to study use of an experimental drug to treat severe sepsis, an often-fatal infection of the bloodstream.

The school's Institutional Review Board, which is assigned to protect people enrolled in research, took note of the number of patients dying in Butler's portion of the study and asked him for answers.

Butler was slow to provide documents and details showing that researchers at the other facilities in the study were experiencing similar mortality rates. Documents obtained through an open-records request don't indicate the number of deaths.

"At that time it was essentially a paperwork issue," said Dr. Lorenz Lutherer, a professor of physiology and internal medicine at Tech who helped mediate a dispute between Butler and the board. "I think potentially the interpretation might have been that this was challenging his professional credibility."

The review board lifted its suspension after a month but said it would review the case in six months.

In June 2002, the federal Food and Drug Administration rejected Butler's application for a $700,000 grant to study gentamicin, the standard plague medicine for the Army. Butler had failed to submit a form required for testing the drug on humans.

In October, Tech's review board notified Butler that it was shutting down his human research based on the follow-up review of his sepsis study. On the document obtained by open-records requests, the reason for the board's action is blacked out.

Finally, on Jan. 9, university officials notified Butler by letter that they were moving forward with an inquiry about his work. The reason for the probe was blacked out.

Two days later, Butler told campus police that the 30 vials of plague samples were missing.

Former colleagues described Butler as shy, quiet and passionate about his work. None interviewed for this story said they believed he would knowingly do anything wrong. They said he had an obstinate streak that helped him become a renowned scientist but might account for his difficult relations with superiors.

"I could see that he would rub authorities the wrong way," said Craig Wallace, a retired admiral who knew Butler from his days in the Navy. "He was opinionated. Just because an authority would say to do something, he wouldn't do if he didn't think it was the right thing to do. I could see how he might alienate people."

A colleague from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md., told assistant U.S. Attorney Dick Baker, who is prosecuting Butler's case, that the scientist did much of his research at a time when security measures weren't as strict.

"Dr. Butler, being of the 'old school' clinical researchers, did not appear to be as attentive to these issues as we are compelled to be," the military doctor wrote.

Butler's attorney, Floyd Holder of Lubbock, said there are perfectly legitimate explanations for Butler's behavior. Holder said, for example, that Butler was doing nothing out of the ordinary when he brought plague samples home from Tanzania on a commercial airliner.

Over the past 30 years, Butler has transported live samples about 60 times, including an instance in 1975 when Butler carried samples collected in Vietnam aboard the last commercial flight out of Saigon, his attorney said.

Former colleagues report that Butler, who married a woman he met in Sweden in 1980 and has two sons and a daughter, has been badly shaken by his legal problems.

Chuck Carpenter, a professor of medicine at Brown Medical School in Providence, R.I., who has known Butler for more than 20 years, said he had spoken to Butler twice recently.

"He was quite concerned both times about the gravity of the charges," Carpenter said. "I hope it will all work out well because I just can't imagine Tom would do anything knowingly wrong."