Monday, August 14, 2017

Beyond the Pickering Debacle

by Rachel Fellman

Dr. Donald Pickering's lab notebooks are easy to date for two reasons. First, he served at the University of Oregon Medical School for only five years -- as a professor of pediatrics, and then as the first director of the Oregon Regional (now National) Primate Research Center. His speedy departure from the latter post was still referred to decades later as "the Pickering Debacle."

Photo by author
The second reason, though, is that he was a tidy man who obviously treasured his office supplies. The first page of each hardcover notebook is neatly labeled with the subject and year, with a first-day-of-school enthusiasm that's been preserved intact through the early years of the doctor's professional life. Their internal organization is similarly scholarly. Photographs are pasted in and neatly labeled, and introductory matter is written in full sentences without corrections. I like to think that Dr. Pickering, who died in 2006, would have appreciated knowing that we've removed the rusted paperclips from his work and fitted it precisely into a 2.5-inch acid-free box.

His tenure here was unhappy, as the word "debacle" tends to suggest. The reason why is less obvious. The relevant oral histories are a Rashomon-like collection of stories, often marked by anxiety about how much detail to discuss, even thirty years later. To Dr. Robert Campbell, the issue was a personality conflict -- a question of money and control -- between Dr. Pickering and the Dean of the medical school, Dr. David W. E. Baird. This blossomed into an open argument in the local press, with the Dean's allies attacking Pickering's personality and mental health. Joseph A. Adams, former head of public relations, remembers Pickering as the aggressor in the matter, a man who got into legal trouble that the dean had to answer for, and whose resignation was a bluff which the Dean cannily called. Dr. Peter Bentley simply says that Pickering was an abrasive manager who was quickly fired. Dr. Richard Jones recalls that the conflict played out over a computer -- a significant purchase in 1963 -- which Dr. Pickering bought without authorization using NIH funds. He speaks warmly of Dr. Pickering's intellectual curiosity, ambition, and creativity, and also of his unapologetic ego. Of all of these accounts, Dr, Jones's appears to be the most objective, although that doesn't mean it's the most correct.

It's always an interesting challenge to delve into institutional history without simply digging up old dirt. I was tempted to stop with the irresistible phrase "the Pickering Debacle," but of course a little research revealed a much more complicated and suggestive story about a rapidly growing institution whose ambitious staff tended to burn hot. It all has very little to do with the fetal development of rhesus macaques, but somehow, in between all the drama, Dr. Pickering found the time to conduct and collect his research into his two elegant notebooks.

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