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When the House subcommittee on investigations held daylong hearings on human cloning in March, Avi Ben-Abraham was seated in the first row, directly in line with the television cameras. According to subcommittee aides, Ben-Abraham appeared unexpectedly, in the company of the principal witness, former University of Kentucky fertility researcher Panos Zavos, politely offering to help answer the subcommittee's questions.
Three weeks before, the multimillionaire founder of a Chicago-area biotech company turned up at the University of Rome, where the Italian Society for Reproductive Medicine was sponsoring a conference on human cloning. Although not on the conference program, Ben-Abraham began introducing himself to reporters as a member of the scientific team, led by Zavos and Italian gynecologist Severino Antinori, that claims it will clone the first human being within two years.
It was merely the latest incarnation for 43-year-old Ben-Abraham, who has spent the past two decades surfacing, disappearing and resurfacing in the company of presidents, prime ministers, Hong Kong billionaires, European royalty, Hollywood moguls and members of the Kennedy family. Although he failed to win election, Ben-Abraham, a political neophyte, gained a coveted place two years ago on the ruling Likud Party's slate of candidates for the Israeli parliament through the personal intervention of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ben-Abraham has used his relationships, however ephemeral, with the high and mighty to forge connections with the friends of friends and acquaintances. His purported credentials as a child-prodigy physician have lent Ben-Abraham an aura of expertise on such urgent public health issues as cancer and AIDS, affording him unparalleled access to important political figures, the media and wealthy investors on three continents.
"He has this ability to talk about anything and everything," said one man whose family befriended Ben-Abraham for several years. "He is one of the most charming, one of the most amusing, one of the most entertaining, believable people. He can cry in a split second. He can seem as solemn as the pope. The next second he can be cheerful and show you the best time. He's a genius. Everyone felt they were dealing with an exceptional intelligence."
Ben-Abraham's own account of his life, as recorded in the piles of news clippings he carries in his personal portfolio along with photographs of himself with the rich and famous, is remarkable by any measure: able to read and write at age 2, mastered Einstein's theory of general relativity at 7, graduated from high school at 13, performed advanced research in medicine and physics at 15, participated in open-heart surgery at 16, played a key role in the discoveries that underlie the Strategic Defense Initiative, nominated for the Nobel Prize at 23. "I am awake," he once told The Boston Globe, "and most other people are asleep."
But there is an unseen side to Avi Ben-Abraham as extraordinary as his public face.
Title due to errors
His claim to the title, at age 18, of the world's youngest MD -- an achievement recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records -- turns out to rest on nothing more than a string of bureaucratic errors and misunderstandings. His claim to have provided the inspiration for "Doogie Howser, M.D.," the TV show about a teenage boy who becomes a doctor, …