Henk Buck, who died last week in Tilburg at the age of 93, was emeritus professor of organic chemistry at Eindhoven University of Technology. In 1967 he was one of the first to receive the gold medal from the Royal Dutch Chemical Society, an important chemistry prize, for his research on carbonium ions.
But Buck became best known 23 years later for what would later be called the ‘Buck affair’ – a scientific error that revolved around a possible cure for AIDS.
On April 12, 1990, Buck was instantly world famous. That evening, the NOS Journaal devotes almost fifteen minutes to a breakthrough that “can put an end to the deadly disease AIDS.” Buck has created “phosphate methylated DNA,” which would bind to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In the Amsterdam lab of the newly appointed professor of virology Jaap Goudsmit, the substance inhibits the virus. They publish about this in the top scientific journal Science. Domestic and foreign media tumble over him. Buck told NOS that he expects AIDS to be eradicated from the world within a few years.
At that time, Buck was consistently characterized by colleagues as a driven researcher, a hard worker and an incredible optimist. He is a respected researcher.
But less than a day after the NOS broadcast, microbiologist Huub Schellekens is fiercely critical of the false hope that Buck arouses in patients with the, at the time, fatal disease. Not much later, criticism from colleagues followed and the tubes from Buck’s lab turned out to contain no modified DNA at all. It Science article is retracted. Fellow researcher Goudsmit gets off with a reprimand and continues his career after ten depressive years. Buck, then 60 years old, has to leave and retires early.
Henk Buck was the son of Frans Buck, a well-known organist in the Boniface Church of Dordrecht. Young Buck had a beautiful soprano, it was thought he would become a singer. He even went on tour in the 1940s. When he got older, he chose chemistry, but music remained important.
In a episode of television program Other times in 2005 Buck stated that he always reacted too enthusiastically to things and was not sufficiently aware of the impact of his statements about his research. He had no regrets, he said. “I have worked to the best of my knowledge.”
As a scientific loner, Buck wrote occasional scientific articles about the properties of modified DNA until 2015. The affair would remain a sore point for the rest of his life. During an interview with the newspaper Fidelity in 2017 were his His eyes were regularly moist when he talked about it.
It also remained painful for Goudsmit. In 2021, he confessed in an interview with NRC that he never spoke to Buck again afterward. Two months before Buck’s death, Goudsmit finally spoke to him, he now says when asked, but not about the affair. They would call about it again later. It never came to that again.
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