In 1974, Summerlin was working under immunologist Robert A. Good at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, conducting research in transplantation immunology. He claimed to have shown that success of skin transplants between genetically unrelated animals was enhanced by culturing the skin in special medium for several weeks. If so, the work had major implications as a means to suppress immunological rejection of transplanted tissues. However, his own and others' attempts to reproduce his original results failed.
The experimental method involved transplantation of skin from black mice (with black melanocyte pigment cells) to white mice (without melanocytes). Over time, the melanocytes would naturally tend to migrate out of the transplanted tissue, so as to produce a grayish patch rather than a distinctly black patch.
In the incident that became notorious, Summerlin was called to a meeting with Good, and took with him the single experimental animal that was the best evidence of transplant success. Noting that the patch had "grayed", Summerlin by his own subsequent admission darkened it with a black permanent marker. The mouse was not produced at the meeting with Good. Summerlin's action was discovered when he returned the mouse to animal care technicians, who immediately noticed that the patch could be removed with alcohol. Senior staff and Good were notified within minutes.
In the subsequent investigation, it became apparent that the original transplantation experiments were poorly controlled, and that other experiments from Summerlin's lab at Sloan-Kettering were misrepresented in reports and to colleagues. The mouse at the center of the controversy involved transplantation between two genetically similar strains, and hence had a conventional explanation. All of Summerlin's transplant work was ultimately withdrawn as shoddy.
Summerlin later attributed his deceptive behavior to a combination of mental and physical exhaustion, a heavy clinical and experimental workload, and pressure to publicize positive results. Memorial Sloan-Kettering President Dr. Lewis Thomas said that Summerlin was suffering from a "serious emotional disturbance". After the incident, Summerlin reportedly moved to rural Louisiana to practice medicine.
- Betrayers of the Truth: Fraud and Deceit in the Halls of Science
- List of scientific misconduct incidents
- The Evolution of the "Scientific Misconduct" Issue: An Historical Overview by Marcel C. LaFollette, Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine 224:211–215 (2000)
- The S.K.I. Affair (Contd.), Time magazine, June 3, 1974
- Where are they now?, by Paroma Basu. Nature Medicine 12, 492 – 493 (2006). Published online: April 27, 2006
- Truth and Trustworthiness in Research, by Caroline Whitbeck, Online Ethics Center at the National Academy of Engineering
- Skin Deep, review of The Patchwork Mouse, Time magazine, March 8, 1976
- Associated Press photograph of William Summerlin, New York Times