David Baltimore was born in New York City on March 7, 1938. A graduate of Swarthmore College (BA, 1960), he received his Ph.D. from Rockefeller University in 1964. From 1965 to 1968, Baltimore worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. In 1968, Baltimore accepted the postion at MIT as Associate Professor of Microbiology; he was promoted to Professor of Biology at MIT in 1972. Since 1973, he has been the American Cancer Professor of Microbiology.
In 1975, at the age of 37, while on the MIT faculty, he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with Howard Temin and Renato Dulbecco, for the discovery of reverse transcriptase, which transcribes RNA into DNA. This work upset what was until the early 1970s a widely held dogma: that DNA led to RNA, which in turn led solely to proteins. Reverse transcriptase is an important factor in the reproduction of retroviruses such as HIV.
While at MIT, Baltimore established the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. He was an organizer of the Asilomar conference on recombinant DNA in 1975.
For most people outside of science, Baltimore is best known for his role in an affair of alleged scientific misconduct. In 1986, Baltimore had co-authored a scientific paper on immunology with Thereza Imanishi-Kari and others. After Imanishi-Kari was accused of fabricating data, Baltimore initially refused to retract the paper (although he did later). Since the research had been funded by the U.S. federal government through the National Institutes of Health, the matter was taken up by the United States Congress, where it was aggressively pursued by, among others, Representative John Dingell. Due to the ensuing controversy, in 1991 Baltimore was forced to resign from the presidency of Rockefeller University, to which he been appointed only one year earlier. In 1996, an expert panel appointed by the federal government cleared Imanishi-Kari of misconduct.
Baltimore has profound influence on national policy in matters concerning recombinant DNA research and the AIDS epidemic. Baltimore was appointed president of the California Institute of Technology in 1997. He is a member of the editorial board of Encyclopædia Britannica.
The following press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences describes Baltimore's work:
“The fact that the viruses can cause tumours was shown already more than 60 years ago by Rous in studies of sarcomas and leukemias in chickens. However this observation was for a long time regarded as a biological curiosity and not until during the 1950ies was it shown that under certain conditions viruses could cause leukemias and other tumours also in other animals, e.g. mice. Studies of virus-induced changes of the growth characteristics of a normal cell to that of tumour cells - a phenomenon referred to as transformation - was facilitated during this decade due to the availability of methods for cultivating cells under laboratory conditions. This technique combined with the discovery of several viruses which could cause transformation in animals and in cell cultures provided facilities for studies of the role of the virus in this process. It was found that both viruses which contain genetic material of the same type as that present in chromosomes of cells i.e. deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and also viruses containing a different type of genetic material, ribonucleic acid (RNA) could cause transformation.”