On Friday, he resigned in disgrace from Seoul National University after a panel there said data in a landmark paper his team published on producing tailored embryonic stem cells had been intentionally fabricated.
South Koreans received the news with shock. The researcher they had built up as a hero and the face of South Korea’s rise to a global leader in cutting-edge technology has embarrassed the country and tainted its image, many said.
Kwon Hyuk-bum, an office worker, said: “I feel very bad and disappointed that the research was a fraud. I was always hoping that Hwang’s stem cell research would help Korea to become the number one country in the biotech sector.”
Hwang was billed as a star scientist and a humble hero who would bring his country a Nobel prize. He was showered with gifts, accolades, and government funding.
Oh Il-hwan, a professor at South Korea’s Catholic University medical school, said: “It might have been better if Professor Hwang had maintained a low profile.”
The South Korean government provided millions of dollars to help fund Hwang’s research.
It established a World Stem Cell Hub, opened about two months ago by Roh Moo-hyun, the South Korean president, to give the country a leading role in the science and praised Hwang’s accomplishments as symbolic of the country’s rise.
The troubles for Hwang started in late November when he apologised for ethical lapses in his research in the way his team had procured human eggs. That set off a media storm.
Yet, just a month ago, Hwang appeared to be on top of the world.
Hwang had dreamed of being
Time magazine named a dog his team had cloned as the most amazing invention of the year. Dogs are considered one of the most difficult animals in the world to clone.
Even before the hub started to accept applications from people who wanted to be test subjects, its website was crashed by a flood of applicants hoping that Hwang would help them overcome debilitating and deadly diseases.
Hwang, 53, grew up in a poor rural area. His father died when he was five and the boy tended three head of cattle to support his mother and impoverished family in the bleak years following the 1950-53 Korean war.
When there was not enough food he ate tree bark.
“As a child, I dreamed of becoming a veterinarian,” he said in May 2005.
The only person in his class to receive an education beyond elementary school, he was eventually accepted into Seoul National University (SNU), widely considered the country’s most elite seat of learning.
“Science is about striving toward hopes and dreams and the process of making those hopes and dreams come true”
He graduated from SNU in 1979 and obtained a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the same university in 1982.
Hwang worked on cloning animals from 1999.
In 2003, Hwang and his team cloned cows with high levels of a protein structure that made them resistant to mad cow disease.
Hwang loved lab work and was quick to end interviews by putting on a blue moon suit and asking reporters to follow him to the rooms where his team was doing their research.
Hwang had enlisted researchers from South Korea, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Spain and other countries to work in his team. There are four labs at SNU working on animal cloning and another two working on human stem cells.
“Science is about striving toward hopes and dreams and the process of making those hopes and dreams come true,” he had said in his interview last May.