James Watson Will Be the First Nobel Laureate to Sell His Medallion

But his racist comments have created a surge of pushback

Photo: Karen Kasmauski/CORBIS

On Thursday, James Watson's Nobel medallion for the shared discovery of the molecular structure of DNA will be auctioned off, the Financial Times reports. Watson told the Financial Times that he's opting to become the first Nobel laureate in history to sell his prize because he has been shunned by the scientific community. Finding himself labeled an "unperson" over the last few years, he says, he could really use the money.

There's more to the story to than that, however. Many science writers—at the Guardian, Slate, the Washington Post and elsewhere—are reminding their readers about Watson's career-long racist and sexist comments, and some are urging people not to bid on his Nobel medallion. Laura Helmuth, at Slate, writes:

Watson had been making racist and sexist remarks throughout his career, but he really outdid himself seven years ago when he told the Sunday Times that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” He further said that while we may wish intelligence to be equal across races, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

And at the Guardian, Adam Rutherford says:

Call me old-fashioned, but that sounds like bog-standard, run-of-the-mill racism to me....Here’s our challenge: celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it. And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too.

Here's a brief recap of how Watson's career has come to this: 

In 1953, thanks to some photos Rosalind Franklin left in the garbage can, Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA. They failed to inform Franklin of this. They received the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery; Franklin has already passed away due to cancer. In 1968, Watson published an account of the discovery and described Franklin as "Rosy" (a nickname no one is known to have called her in her life), Rutherford writes in the Guardian. Watston wrote of Franklin, "Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not."

Watson went on to hold a professorship at Harvard, where he quickly earned the disdain of renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, after he indicated that the study of organisms is of lesser importance than molecules. Wilson later noted that "unfortunately, due to Watson’s stroke of genius at age 25, 'He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously,'" Helmuth writes.

Watson went on to insult obese people ("Whenever you interview fat people you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them."); women in science ("I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective."); and gay people ("If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her.").

In 2007, after that Sunday Times interview, Watson's comments finally led to consequences: he was condemned by the scientific community and lost his 40-year board membership at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

That brings us to today. On Thursday, the auction will take place. As the BBC reports, the prize should fetch up to $3.5 million, with another $350,000 or so for Watson's hand written notes from his acceptance speech. Watson says some of the proceeds will go to charities and academic and research institutes. Or, he added to the Financial Times, he might just buy a David Hockney painting.  

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