12th edition of my human genetics textbook


Glenn Nichols, surrounded by his hospice team. The author is in yellow.


Genetic Linkage

Imprisoned Gene Therapy Pioneer, French Anderson, Launches Website

January 28, 2014

Tags: gene therapy, William French Anderson, NIH, Friends of French Anderson

William French Anderson, MD
In September 1990, William French Anderson, MD, posed with 4-year-old Ashi DeSilva at the NIH clinical center. Days earlier, she’d become the first recipient of gene therapy, a biotechnology that Dr. Anderson and others had been thinking about since Watson and Crick published the structure of DNA in 1953.

On July 29, 2004, Dr. Anderson, then 67, was arrested at his home in San Marino, California, and charged with molesting the daughter of a co-worker. The “inappropriate touching and medical exams” allegedly happened from 1997 to 2001, starting when the girl was ten. He has always maintained his innocence.

Dr. Anderson was tried in June 2006, convicted the next month, and sentenced to 14 years in prison on February 3, 2007. More than 200 scientists, many quite prominent, formed "Friends of French Anderson" and sent detailed letters to the court vouching for his character. But despite appeals, he has been in prison all this time.

Out of options, Dr. Anderson has just unveiled a website, www.wfrenchanderson.org that includes forensic evidence in his defense and other documents. He’s asked me to spread the word. I won’t discuss the evidence or legal details, at least not yet, but I wanted to relate how I came to learn about the case.

I’d read Dr. Anderson’s papers through the 1980s and 1990s, and was shocked to learn about his situation. I was at the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy annual meeting in May 2010, having breakfast with the main “characters” in the book I was writing, The Forever Fix: Gene Therapy and the Boy Who Saved It. One of the researchers mentioned how Dr. Anderson had been the one to convince her to go to medical school, so I asked her for an update on what he was working on. Still inherited immune deficiencies?

The researcher grew quiet for a moment, then told me where he was. She didn’t go into too much detail, because children were present, but suggested I e-mail Dr. Anderson’s wife Kathy, and read an article in the October 2007 issue of Wired, "Molest Conviction Unravels Gene Pioneer’s Life", by Jennifer Kahn. I did both.

Kathy and I emailed and spoke on the phone. She recommended that I read “French Anderson: The Father of Gene Therapy,” by Bob Burke and Barry Epperson, published in 2003, for background. That took awhile to find, but meanwhile I wrote to Dr. Anderson asking him to read my chapters. He eagerly agreed.

Prisons have strict rules about what a prisoner can receive, so Kathy brought my manuscript, a chapter at a time, to her husband. A few weeks later, the chapters came back to me marked up, along with a letter explaining that he wasn’t yet free to speak to me, nor had he been free to tell Jennifer Kahn, about evidence he believed would exonerate him.

Because Dr. Anderson is one of the founders of gene therapy, I included his story in my book. But as I’d feared, that section ended up on the cutting room floor. My editor at St. Martin’s Press drew big red X’s through it, although she passed it on to the attorney – who rejected it immediately. Only the basic biographical info on Dr. Anderson remained, up through 1992, all in the context of leading the first gene therapy experiment. A lone sentence in the endnotes refers to the Wired article.

The publisher’s instincts were correct. People don’t like to read or hear about child sex abuse cases, especially when the verdict was guilty. The first few times I gave “the book talk,” I mentioned Dr. Anderson’s troubles. Big mistake. When a woman yelled at me after a presentation at a university as if I were a child molester, I took that part out.

The Forever Fix was published in March 2012. One cobbled-together quote from Dr. Anderson made it through, opening part III, “Evolution of an Idea”: “If you have people dying of genetic disease, due to a defective gene, then you correct the gene … I am delighted that today, gene therapy is having a rebirth.” But so much is left out in the dot-dot-dot deletion.

The quote came from an email via Kathy, in response to my asking how it felt to be watching the field that he helped to found soar, from behind bars. “My total mental efforts are towards exoneration and release. Then I'll see where the field stands and whether my brain can catch up. I am delighted that gene therapy is having a rebirth. I hope the near future will allow a hypothetical book entitled, ‘The rise and fall and rebirth of French Anderson and the wife who is his foundation,’” he answered.

So like an intron cut from a gene sequence, coverage of Dr. Anderson’s circumstance vanished from my book. I sent a copy of it once it was published to the Andersons and we stayed in touch.

In July 2012, the conviction was upheld. But the Drs. Anderson (Kathy is a surgeon) weren’t ready to give up.

In September 2012, Kathy sent me an updated version of “My Story,” a document by her husband that is posted on his website. They had new forensic evidence clearly showing a set-up, a spliced tape used to get the conviction, she said. Would I write an article about what their investigators had found? The Andersons had already shared that evidence with the editor of a top genetics publication. Intrigued, the editor sent me the report on the evidence (also on the website), and asked me to develop a story, perhaps for the January 2013 issue. I got as far as a detailed outline before attorneys for the publication nixed the idea.

Around that time, I’d just started writing the DNA Science blog at Public Library of Science (PLOS). When the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in October took me to San Francisco, where PLOS is based, I stopped in to meet my editor. Could I post about Dr. Anderson’s case?

Like the St. Martin’s editor and attorney, the PLOS editor and attorney said no. The information I had was proprietary. But that’s no longer the case.

The reason that the forensic evidence is now being made public is that on December 16, 2013, the California Supreme Court denied a Petition for Review, which would have enabled Dr. Anderson’s team to present that evidence.

On December 31, French Anderson turned 78. He does not want to die in prison.


  1. February 1, 2014 11:27 AM EST
    Thank you for your updates, insights and books. Kudos.
    - david r bachinsky
  2. February 1, 2014 10:30 PM EST
    Thanks David. When I saw a comment I thought someone was going to yell at me for writing about French! It was frustrating to be sitting on this story and not be able to write about it. PLOS would not run it. So I'm glad you noticed it. I do hope that justice is served. Thanks!
    - Ricki Lewis
  3. April 11, 2014 12:19 PM EDT
    I hope you will add this information to the Wikipedia article about Dr. Anderson, which currently leaves the story as it was. I studied with him back in the 1970's and knew several people in his group, and the whole abuse thing always seemed totally out-of-character for the man I knew. I hope this new evidence will be fairly evaluated.
    - Helen F. Stanbro
  4. February 4, 2015 5:11 PM EST
    Dr. Anderson has been a dear and favored genius friend since he first arrived at Harvard University and I am shocked and saddened that justice could be so horribly misused. My entire family sends our deepest prayers that this will be turned around. My love to both doctors and offer whatever help we may be able to give.
    - Jince( for the) Bill McCurdy Family
  5. December 15, 2015 11:34 PM EST
    You know the 'friends of anderson' link on this blog just leads to an article. Not a so-called organization. As a scientist working at USC at the time of the trial I followed this closely in the press. I have looked without finding, a single scientist who went on record with their support of this man. Maybe they exist and I haven't seen it. The judge interviewed appeared to admit to receiving pleas from scientists, but these names were not publicly released. So they're either fictional or else don't want to be publicly associated with a convicted child molestor. I also saw some of the emails written by Anderson to the victim. These are available online. Anyone who thinks this guy is innocent should read them. They are creepy and demonstrate a man with serious issues. These along with the other evidence made the case that convicted him. Which is why there are no 'prominent scientists' much less 200 of them, willing to put their names next to his.
    - Iggee popp
  6. September 22, 2016 5:15 AM EDT
    I am forensic engineer who was asked to review the recording used as evidence. I believe in our judicial system.....however I have proved many times where individuals within governmental systems adulterate evidence. Please go read the new evidence which proves that law enforcement altered the recording. Doesn't this situation cause anyone to wonder why any court would deny a citizen the right to present evidence of his innocence, no matter when the evidence was discovered? Our founding documents don't establish the details of how our judicial system is to function in its totality. However, they do explicitly state each citizens rights. I hope that this entire episode will be open for discussion with the public at large. All citizens should be aware of the conduct of some of the individuals in law enforcement for this case. And we should seriously look at the system which is in place that allows a law enforcement individual to violate a citizens rights by manufacturing evidence for the purpose of taking away a persons freedom, his wealth, and sometimes his life. These acts, performed by individuals that are protected under the 'color of law' should be utilized as the evidence that it is....to prosecute the corrupt persons.
    - Not signed for my protection
  7. September 22, 2016 8:15 AM EDT
    Thank you anonymous forensic engineer. I have wanted to fully write French's story, perhaps even as a book, for many years. The few times I've had the ear of an editor, lawyers intervene, and I cannot do it. This post is the only writing I've done about French. I hope that he will be exonerated and released, and that I can meet him and finally help him to tell his story. It is a travesty of justice. Thank you again. I've read the evidence report.
    - Ricki Lewis
  8. January 25, 2017 10:17 PM EST
    Sadly, French's faith in the judicial system was really his downfall. He simply assumed the system worked, so by the time he figured out that it was a game of brinkmanship not justice, it was too late; convicted. He never stepped up. But, as the forensic engineer pointed out, the physical evidence has been debunked. So, Ricki, stay tuned; French isn't licked yet.
    - dailylooker
  9. January 25, 2017 11:02 PM EST
    thanks dailylooker. I haven't heard anything from the French camp in a long time. I think of him often and hope he is ok.
    - Ricki Lewis
  10. April 16, 2017 6:06 PM EDT

    I knew the brave survivor who came forward and accused him. I know that he paid a ton of money to a private investigator to try and discredit her. I know that the PI showed up at two of her counselors' doors late in the evening, when these women were alone, in an attempt to catch them changing their story. What would cause the PD to even alter things to hurt him--a respected, successful white scientist who was financially supportive of police. (The San Marino PD turned it over to LA County because they knew the fact that he had given their department significant money for equipment would cause a problem in a trial. LA County had no reason to believe he was a bad dude, but they are going to alter evidence.) I know that there were other survivors who didn't come forward for a host of reasons, including the slander thrown at the one who did. He did this, and the fact that he is brilliant and charming does not absolve him of anything. He did this.
    - Denise Gill
  11. April 16, 2017 7:04 PM EDT
    Thanks Denise. I know that there are many sides to these tragic events and I acknowledge that I have only heard one. I really appreciate your comment.
    - Ricki Lewis
  12. April 21, 2017 1:08 PM EDT
    I actually sat next to French Anderson at a company meeting once. I was new and he asked me who I was. I gave him my thumbnail bio and asked him who he was. He laughed! Others at the table laughed. He never told me his name. I left the meeting thinking "What an asshole!" Turns out he wasn't just an asshole, he is a pedophile, too!
    - Thomas O'Neill
  13. April 21, 2017 3:37 PM EDT
    Well, we just don't know. Behavior is subjective -- what is sexual assault to one person is accepted behavior to another.
    - Ricki Lewis
  14. April 25, 2018 8:22 PM EDT
    I knew French Anderson from USC Medical Campus in the early 90's. I worked for Computing Services. His department had a Novel server named Genome. In 1995 I was doing routine file system maintenance on all the servers on campus and noticed a directory on Genome that had an unusual high amount of data in an unusual location. I examined and found hundreds of jpeg files of child porn. I deleted it and flushed the salvage buffer. I never suspected it may have been his. I had too much respect for him. Very sad.
    - Leny Freeman
  15. July 2, 2018 5:51 PM EDT
    thomas o' neill you haven't a clue you don't know the man you have a nasty little mind and French can prove he is innocent when he is allowed to
    - richard lane

Project to engage students in helping families with rare genetic diseases
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Many challenging questions to stimulate thought and discussion.
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38 discussion questions to get students thinking and talking about gene therapy, including the science, ethical issues, and the drug approval process.
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The Forever Fix is the uplifting true story of 8-year-old Corey Haas, who was cured of hereditary blindness just 4 days after gene therapy.
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