35 Who Made a Difference: James Watson

After DNA, what could he possibly do for an encore?

James Watson
Wikimedia Commons

Francis Crick died in July 2004, age 88. Maurice Wilkins died two months later, age 87. In Stockholm in December 1962, Crick, Wilkins and James Watson had shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery nine years earlier—as all the world knows—of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, the stuff that genes are made of. Another scientist should have been on that platform, Rosalind Franklin, who died in 1958, age 37. Her meticulous experimental work in 1952 had supplied the essential X-ray-crystallographic data that Watson and Crick used, without her knowing at the time, to get out the structure. Nobel prizes are never awarded posthumously; Wilkins was in effect her stand-in. To be sure, a score of others contributed bits and pieces of evidence and technique, but Watson and Crick were the ones who put it all together, literally, to build the model of the double helix. It was a discovery unique in its centrality and explanatory power, the most important in the history of biology. Of all those involved, that golden generation, Watson at 77 is the last man standing.

Watson and Crick: the two are forever twinned and defined by that discovery—and by each other. Crick went on in science, playing a crucial role as theorist and generalissimo in the discovery of transfer RNAs—molecules that help assemble protein chains on the instructions of DNA—and especially in deciphering the genetic code. In the 1970s, he switched to neurobiology and attacked the problem of consciousness.

Watson continued at the bench in molecular biology for a while, with some relatively minor successes. After the Nobel Prize, his name has appeared on no more than three research papers. This has been due in part to his honorable and refreshing rejection of the widespread practice whereby senior scientists supervising research of juniors list themselves on resulting papers as authors when in fact they have done none of the work. More deeply, though, Watson was creating a new and strenuous mode of doing science.

In the fall of 1973 he told me, "People always ask me, are you doing science, are you doing experiments, and I say no, and then they seem to think that that's terrible and that I should be very unhappy, but I’m really not unhappy at all. The thing that makes me happy is just the appearance of new science." He had spent two years at the California Institute of Technology after the great discovery, then had been called to Harvard. In 1968, part time at first, he took on the directorship of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a nonprofit biology research facility on the north shore of Long Island, hard by Oyster Bay and the estates of serious old money.

Unquestionably, Watson, when doing science at his best, deployed a kind of intuitive brilliance, including (I infer) vivid spatial visualization. "Jim dreams his science"—thus the evocative judgment of the great and humane French microbiologist André Lwoff, himself a laureate, in a magisterial review of Watson's memoir of the great discovery, The Double Helix. He has a difficult personality, strenuously self-centered, often rude to an extreme, yet he has the virtue of his vices: he says exactly what he thinks and his be-damned-to-you honesty excoriates crappy science and scorns slovenly, hypocritical, self-serving attitudes toward the societal consequences of science. He's proud of it. He told an interviewer in 1991: "I guess I'm best known for just saying things the way I think they are under circumstances where you're not supposed to say it."

With all this, though, Watson has a further trait, central to his way in the world though rarely remarked: an extraordinary skill in getting on with older or more senior men who can promote his objectives, most famously the two who influenced him profoundly, Max Delbrück and Francis Crick. Delbrück was a German quantum physicist, a follower of Niels Bohr, who came to the United States in 1937 and turned to the genetics of the simplest microorganisms. With an intellect and a personal style austere, rigorous, demanding, attractive, he was Watson's mentor and patron beginning in the late 1940s. Watson revered him. Crick was the elder by 11 years and the product of a sophisticated European culture, brilliant, assertive, above all socially urbane and sexually successful in ways the gawky post-adolescent deeply envied. In the days of their collaboration, Crick (after Delbrück) was the one against whom Watson measured himself, whose approval he strove to gain.

After the Nobel, even as he left Harvard, Watson was turning himself into an effective, irascible organizer and spur of research in molecular biology. His first book was Molecular Biology of the Gene, a textbook that has gone through many editions. Then in 1968 came The Double Helix, awkward, jolting, intensely personal, a bestseller and a unique classic. Those who have read the book may want to think of it as Jim's working-through of his relationship to Francis, a testimonial and a declaration of independence. That year, also, he married Elizabeth Lewis: they have two sons.

Cold Spring Harbor has been Watson's other great passion. When he first went there, as a graduate student in 1948, it was a bucolic summer camp for biologists, particularly beloved of Delbrück and his colleagues and acolytes. When he became director, two decades later, its finances were desperate. He rescued it, he renovated it, and in nearly 40 years he has built it into a world-renowned science factory. His Nobel, his world standing, his volatile eccentricities have attracted donations of land, of bold modern buildings and high-tech laboratories, of endowment. The place now runs graduate and specialized technical courses, and upwards of 60 meetings and an annual symposium. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press brings out textbooks, monographs, essential advanced laboratory manuals, and occasional trade books (including, by way of disclosure, the latest edition of my own Eighth Day of Creation: The Makers of the Revolution in Biology).

From his base at Cold Spring Harbor, Watson became perhaps the most powerful—certainly the most outspoken—promoter and critic of the enterprise of the sciences in the United States in his day. He has written constantly, articles addressed to scientists and policymakers and to the public in the Atlantic, the New Republic and the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. He has spoken out contentiously, particularly in defense of research on recombinant DNA (what used to be called genetic engineering) and the human genome project and its applications.

In 1988, he became the first director at the National Institutes of Health of their component of the genome project. Three years later, he told an interviewer, "When I took the job in Washington I suddenly had to have a press conference and without thinking I said, 'We're going to spend three percent of our money on ethics.'" That became the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Research Program (ELSI), and the amount grew to 5 percent of the NIH genome budget. "Probably the wisest thing I've done over the past decade," he said.

ELSI is emblematic of Watson's convictions. These are rooted in his childhood, a strongly left-liberal Democratic family in Depression-era Chicago, angered by social injustice. He is an obdurate atheist (as was Crick). He quit the genome project in 1992, over a dispute on principle with the then director of NIH, Bernadine Healey. He continues to speak out. "I've gone out of my way to emphasize that we've really got to worry that a genetic underclass exists," he has said. "I think our biggest ethical problem is people won't use the information we get, and I think that's just as bad, to let a child be born with no future—when their parents certainly would have not wished to have such a child but had not been genetically tested to show the risk. I think that's totally irresponsible." He has angered antiabortionists and appalled those on the left who think him a neo-eugenicist. Yet he has battled for the strictest privacy of genetic information. He has also said: "I think all genetic decisions should be made by women, not the state, not their husbands, just by women, because they're going to give birth to those children, and they're going to be the ones most responsible."

In 1993, at 65, he relinquished the directorship at Cold Spring Harbor and had himself boosted to president. About that time, an interviewer asked the banal question, What new projects are you taking on? He replied sardonically, "Oh, I'm too old to start anything new. I'm trying to improve my tennis game." In 1999, the program of advanced courses at Cold Spring Harbor gained New York State accreditation to grant doctorates. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Watson School of Biological Sciences graduated its first PhDs (14 of them) in June 2004, the man himself leading the academic procession as chancellor in the full regalia that he had specified.

A cult of personality has bloomed around Watson at Cold Spring Harbor. Crick, for one, recognized this, with some regret. Yet there is a personality, one of the most vivid, unpredictable, effective and memorable in the long history of science. It is to be celebrated. But stand back.

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