On a cold, early February day in 2005, the man who was giving me a tour of a not-yet-open science lab in Waunakee asked if I would like to hold a cloned kitten.
The tiny animal felt like any other kitten, which I suppose was the point.
I wouldn’t have been in the lab that winter morning — the kitty either — if not for John G. Sperling, the wealthy University of Phoenix founder who died last week, at 93.
While Sperling’s obituaries have stressed his role as a pioneer of for-profit adult education, most have also mentioned what The New York Times on Tuesday called his “unorthodox activities.” Perhaps the most unorthodox was an expensive, controversial interest in animal cloning. The Madison area played a significant role in that interest.
It started — for me anyway — in spring 2004, when I happened on a San Francisco Chronicle article about a Bay Area company with the unlikely name of Genetic Savings and Clone (GSC).
The story mentioned Sperling — it called him an “iconoclastic octogenarian” — and said he founded GSC in hopes he could clone his dog, a collie-husky mix named Missy. The story said the company had two laboratories, adding, “it plans one in Madison, Wis.”
Over the next few days I tried to get a confirmation from GSC that they were indeed coming to Madison. Eventually, the communications vice president called and said the story was wrong, there were no plans to build a lab in Madison.
The story wasn’t wrong. In October 2004, Lou Hawthorne, the CEO of GSC, went on the nationally televised “Early Show” on CBS to say the company had successfully cloned cats — they proved much easier than dogs, though the retail price was a staggering $50,000 — and was planning to locate, in Madison, “the most advanced facility in the world” for cat cloning.
Hawthorne proved elusive when I tried to reach him after his comments on CBS. Then, in late December — after a reader alerted me to a GSC logo
outside a suite in the Waunakee Business Center — Hawthorne finally called.
“Madison is our home,” he said. “It is our new home for all our science.”
He said the company chose Madison in part because another local high-tech company, Infigen, had recently closed, and GSC was able to hire a number of their employees.
He also said the company’s cloning goal remained dogs. “We get 80 to 90 percent of our publicity about cats,” Hawthorne said. “But 80 to 90 percent of our research is about dogs. We know how to do cats. We are working feverishly to do dogs.”
On a visit to Madison six weeks later, Hawthorne invited me to lunch at the Concourse. He was then 44, polished, soft-spoken but humorous, a literature graduate from Princeton whose faded blue jeans fit his laid-back, California vibe.
Hawthorne talked that day about John Sperling, whom he called a close family friend. (In Sperling’s recent obituaries, Lou Hawthorne’s mother, Joan Hawthorne, was identified as Sperling’s “longtime companion.”)
Hawthorne told me that one day in 1997, while he and Sperling were having breakfast — Sperling’s dog, Missy, was on the floor between them — Sperling read in The New York Times a story about Dolly, the sheep that in 1996 became the first cloned mammal.
“I want you to look into how we might clone Missy,” Sperling said.
After our Concourse lunch, Hawthorne invited me to stop by the lab in Waunakee the next morning. The 8,000-square-foot facility was scheduled to open March 1. A million-dollar microscope had yet to arrive, but there was a cloned cat on the premises, and Hawthorne asked if I would like to hold it.
Despite high hopes and grand plans — a cloned dog soon, public tours of the lab, a 24-hour emergency vet clinic open to the public — the GSC lab in Waunakee failed, and rather quickly.
In October 2006, Hawthorne announced its closing in a letter to customers that read in part: “Despite investing many millions of dollars, assembling one of the most qualified teams in the world, building a first-rate facility and successfully cloning some cats, we have simply been unable to develop this technology to the point that cloning pets is commercially viable.”
Hawthorne resurfaced in 2009, quite publicly, as the subject of a 2,000-word profile in The New York Times that revealed Hawthorne had another California biotech company, BioArts, and two dogs, clones of Missy, Sperling’s dog, created in a lab in South Korea.
“Mr. Hawthorne thinks that the market is keen,” the Times noted, referring to commercial dog cloning.
Yet earlier this year, in April, there was one more article. The first British owner of a cloned dog was in the news. A Daily Mirror reporter interviewed Hawthorne in northern California. Nearby, one of Missy’s clones played in the surf. Hawthorne told the Mirror reporter he was done with cloning, had been out of it for several years, citing the suffering inflicted on dogs during cloning and its research.
“He has turned his back on the industry,” the Mirror story noted.
In its obituary Tuesday, The New York Times called John Sperling’s attempt to clone Missy “ill-fated.” Sperling might even have agreed. When the clones arrived, he gave them to Hawthorne.