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NIH Record

Loves Genetics, Adrenaline
The Adventurous Life of Dolph Lee Hatfield

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Adventure comes into peoples' lives in many ways, sometimes bidden, sometimes pointblank. There is a cancer researcher in Bldg. 37 who carefully builds it into his life, documenting it and savoring it, planning for it and grooming it like some baroque bonsai. Chances are that if an activity whitens knuckles, induces nausea, prompts a spouse to issue ultimatums, or causes insurance rates to skyrocket, Dr. Dolph Lee Hatfield will have already been there, done that.


NCI's Dr. Dolph Hatfield in a calm moment at his Bldg. 37 office. His preferred attire is a race driver's jumpsuit.

Ironically, the leather-bound scrapbook of his feats is only slightly less animated than Hatfield, an El Paso, Tex., native who has been studying cancer at NIH for almost 32 years. Laconic is too agitated a word to describe his demeanor, which zigs erratically between composure and serenity. Yet here he is in the book, a bearded, grizzled presence amid various youthful hardbodies in such exotic locales as Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, and El Sotano, site of the world's deepest pit located in the jungles of Central Mexico. The volume — still growing as new exploits take shape — documents a life of robust achievement, including rappelling in Yosemite National Park, spelunking (he calls it "caving") in more than 200 wild caves in 13 states and Mexico, parachuting in rural Virginia, whitewater rafting in Pennsylvania, stock car racing in Delaware, hang gliding, earning a black belt in karate and dune buggying out West. Could it really be the same man who describes a disastrous first parachute jump — hanging on the wing of a plane at 11,000 feet then getting tangled up with his instructor and falling off — whose strongest expression about such brushes with oblivion is a muted, "It tests your ability to sit on your nerves and not panic"?

Perhaps he is so inured to danger that getting all yakkety about it is an expense of energy better saved for his next adventure. Sitting in his modest second-floor office, Hatfield, chief of the molecular biology of selenium section in NCI's Basic Research Laboratory, is talking in methodical, dispassionate sentences about the time last November when, preparing to race a customized 1973 Volkswagen Beetle in the Baja 1000 off-road race, he crashed the bug with his son Hugh as codriver. The race car's safety belts and roll cage spared the racers serious injury.

The Hatfield race team raises a cloud of dust on the course at last November's Baja 1000 race in Mexico. The team sponsors Children's Hospital in D.C., and raised $567 in pledges during the Baja 1000. Dolph presented the check to the hospital just recently.

"We were pre-running the first leg of the race, going down a mountainside," he explains, "when we were blinded by the sun. Our helmet visors were muddy from splashing through silty streambeds. As we crested a hill at about 60 m.p.h., the car flipped, oh, three or four times. After we stopped rolling, there were about 15 seconds of silence before I heard Hugh ask over the intercom (the engine noise is so intense that racing teams need two-way radios even though they are strapped in, side by side), 'Dad, are you alright?' And I said, 'Are you alright?'

"Fortunately, we landed right-side up, so we felt we could continue racing. But my son got out and saw we'd torn off the back wheel. I got discouraged and thought we were through. But Hugh, being the master mechanic that he is, said all we need is a backing plate, a brake drum and some frame work, and we could race again."

Three days later, the Pop-Pop Racing Team (so named because Hugh's two daughters call their grandfather "Pop-Pop"; the team includes, in addition to son Hugh, daughter Sandra Hatfield Clubb, and son-in-law Jeff) completed 567 of the Baja's 1,000-mile course. It took them 26 of the race's allotted 44 hours to go that far, an astonishing feat for an underfunded lot of amateurs racing a gussied-up chimera of German metal and bus transmission that they bought 3 years ago out of the back of a magazine called Dusty Times. They only quit because the front end fell off, a consequence of the crack-up during practice.

Three days before the Baja 1000, the Hatfield racer was wrecked in an accident that tore off the rear wheel. It was fixed in time for the main event.

"We felt that was quite an achievement," says Dolph, in the same even tones in which he recounted trashing the car just days earlier. "We passed a lot of far more expensive race vehicles, much more high-powered than we were."

Three of the team's 26 hours on the course were spent mired in a silt bed, a "horrendous" predicament in which the wheels spin freely while the car body rests "center-heavy" on a fluffy pile of fine sand. They only got free when locals in a passing truck yanked them loose. "The advantage of the pre-run is avoiding these," observes Hatfield, dryly.

Ocean and mountains line the course of the Baja 1000, a scenic race.

Earlier in the race, the buggy lost its brakes when a master cylinder failed; the resourceful racing team made the repair on the fly. There was no fixing the final insult, though. But as bad as having the front end fall off was, it wasn't nearly the crippling blow that ended the team's participation in the Baja 500 a year earlier. In that race, their Beetle — with Dolph at the wheel and Sandra as copilot — was bashed to the edge of a cliff by another racer. Just as a rescue truck attached a pulley to tow the bug out, they were hit a second time that knocked them over the side of the cliff. The rescue truck pulled them to safety, but as they began to race again, the car caught fire.

"I promised my wife I'd walk away from auto racing after (November's) Baja 1000," Hatfield said. "But the Baja 2000 is coming up in the year 2000. It's hard to give it up."

Hatfield and his son Hugh, an auto mechanic in Frederick, Md., recently sold the VW for much less money than they put into it. Says Dolph, "If I (race) again, we'll buy a well-furnished car in ready-to-race condition."

He traces his hunger for excitement to a childhood spent exploring caves outside the mountainous Texas border town of El Paso. "I grew up in the Southwest, and did a lot of caving," he recalls. While exploring a New Mexico cave at age 21, when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, Hatfield got stuck for several hours in a narrow passageway. "My family made me stop after that incident."

As a pre-med student at UT, Hatfield was all set to go off to medical school when he took a genetics course during his senior year. "That changed my whole outlook," he says. He got a master's degree in genetics, then a Ph.D. at age 24. He spent 2 postdoctoral years training with future NIH director Dr. James Wyngaarden at Duke University, then came to NIH to work in Nobel Laureate Marshall Nirenberg's lab "in the heyday of deciphering the genetic code. I left Nirenberg's lab just before he won the Nobel Prize." Ironically, his next job was with Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Hatfield sits down to the controls in his 1973 VW Beetle. The vehicle is stripped down only to essentials, and features a bus transmission to handle high stress in low gear.

His next professional stop was NCI, where the 61-year-old Hatfield has remained since age 29.

He was deeply active in Montgomery County politics as a younger man, serving as campaign manager for the first Black politician to run for the county council. To this day, Hatfield is passionate about civil rights, writing essays and letters in defense of minorities, especially Native Americans. He is also a lay reader at his church, St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, where he has met, and read Scripture to, President Bill Clinton.

Following his family's curtailment of Hatfield's risky behavior, he underwent a hiatus in adventuring that wasn't rekindled until his son turned 13. Having heard tales while growing up of his dad's trips underground, Hugh naturally wanted to try it himself. Since then, almost all of Dolph's adventures have included Hugh and/or daughters Sandra and Michele. The scrapbook is thus primarily a family affair: Sandra triumphant atop Kilimanjaro 5 years ago, Hugh toting rappelling rope for an assault on the face of El Capitan at Yosemite, Dolph dangling over the deepest pit in the world in Mexico, Hugh and Sandra behind the wheel of the begrimed VW in various off-road races, Michele hang gliding off the coast of Florida. Hatfield has, if nothing else, given his family the most exciting, confidence-building vacations possible; he's a one-man Outward Bound. And a self-taught one at that -- he learned how to rappel in a tree in his backyard, then at Carderock on the Potomac River.

Ironically, the sport that gave him the biggest rush of adrenaline — parachuting — is now off-limits, by edict of his wife, Mary. "She made me stop after 3 jumps — I had to sign a Last Will and Testament each time I jumped," he chuckles. Though he botched the start of his first jump, he nailed the third so perfectly — he has photos to prove it — that giving up the sport is at least endurable. "Skydiving — that's the one that gets your attention more than anything else," he understates, typically.

Thick as his scrapbook is, it is about to gain pages. In 2 months, Hatfield and daughter Michele are taking a motorized rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. "I'm also trying to talk my wife into going shark diving in the Caribbean," he says. To ring in the year 2000, he wants to climb Cerro Aconcagua in the Argentine Andes, which, at 22,834 feet, is the highest mountain in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres.

Where, you might wonder, does a man find the time and energy to be a dedicated scientist, father and husband, climber, auto racer, karate expert, advocate for homeless people and civil rights activist? He offers a conspiratorial wink and says this can't go into the newspaper because it might break the spell: "I only need about 3-4 hours of sleep each night."

What might the rest of us accomplish with a little less shut-eye?

Given to Extremes

When Dolph Hatfield packs up to travel overseas, the need to achieve rides with him. For example, during his stint in Paris as a postdoc at the Pasteur Institute, he took up the Gallic sport of pétanque, also known as boule, which is similar to bocchi or lawn bowling. He joined a local boule club and wound up winning a city-wide tournament and trophy near the end of his year's stay. Out of respect for an American becoming a champion at their sport, club members made Hatfield honorary president in absentia the first year he returned to the States.

Hatfield and the race car he no longer owns.

Similarly, when he visited Mexico some years ago, "the goal of our expedition was to climb its highest point and explore its deepest pits. I climbed Orizaba — an extinct volcano and glacier that is the highest point in Mexico (at around 18,850 feet) and the third highest point on the North American continent (behind Mt. McKinley in Alaska and Mt. Logan in Canada). My son and I also explored Mexico's deepest pits — El Sotano ("The Pit") which, at 1,345 vertical feet, is the deepest pit in the world and Golandrinas ("swallows" in English — many thousands of swallows and parrots inhabit the sides of this pit) which, at 1,098 vertical feet, is the third deepest pit in the world."

When Hatfield and his son Hugh undertook a rappel of El Capitan in Yosemite (2,649 ft. 8 inches — they measured it!) with five other climbers (the expedition consisted of about 20 members including the support team), the event was recognized in climbing and caving circles as a world record rappel on a single rope. "It provided a major breakthrough because a rappel of this distance had not been tried before," says Hatfield. "It was not known if such a distance could be rappelled on a single rope for numerous technical reasons. We lost the record a few years later when a group rappelled the face of Mt. Thor just inside the Arctic Circle in Canada, which was a kilometer in distance."

The route Hatfield's party took on El Capitan in 1980 is known as "The Wall of the Early Morning Light" — an ironic reminder that you've got to get up pretty early in the morning to keep up with Dolph Lee Hatfield.

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