Science made James Watson, and it may destroy him. He worked with one Canadian and three British scientists to unlock the structure of DNA. But his interpretation of what is inside DNA forced him to retire at 79. Even great men have feet of clay.
Watson started off as a birdwatcher. Born on April 6, 1928, he was an only child. On his father's side, nothing but Englishmen. On his mother's side, Irish and Scottish. Raised Catholic, like many scientists he left religion. Science is their religion. He enrolled in the University of Chicago on a whiz kid scholarship at 15 during World War II, intent on studying birds the rest of his life.
Then along came the book, "What Is Life?" by Erwin Schrödinger. Although it was popular non-fiction, the book tapped at the biologist in Watson's DNA.
"To have success in science, you need some luck. Without it, I would never have become interested in genetics. I was 17, almost 3 years into college, and after a summer in the North Woods, I came back to the University of Chicago and spotted the tiny book 'What Is Life' by the theoretical physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In that little gem, Schrödinger said the essence of life was the gene. Up until then, I was interested in birds. But then I thought, well, if the gene is the essence of life, I want to know more about it. And that was fateful because, otherwise, I would have spent my life studying birds and no one would have heard of me," Watson wrote in 1993.
The book was a compilation of a series of public lectures Schrödinger gave in 1943 at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Francis Crick, who later worked with Watson on tapping the secrets of DNA, also cited as his inspiration to study genetics the book by Schrödinger, a 1933 Nobel laureate for his work in helping found quantum mechanics.
Inspiration led to perspiration t paraphrase Edison. Earning his bachelor's degree in zoology at 19. He then enrolled in graduate school at Indiana University, home of molecular biologist and 1946 Nobel laureate Hermann Joseph Muller, who had enrolled at Columbia when he was 16. Muller had worked with 1922 Nobel laureate Niels Bohr and Max Delbrück, a 1969 Nobel laureate. If as Ray Charles postulated, genius loves company, Muller had a lot of company.
In Match 1953, Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins working at the University of Cambridge deduced the double helix structure of DNA -- using data purloined from Rosalind Franklin. They would win the 1962 Nobel, not she as there is a limit of three winners for any prize. Watson also believed Oswald Avery should have shared the prize or at least been given their own. Alas, both Franklin and Avery had died by then.
Franklin was a brilliant British chemist and X-ray crystallographer, whose contributions to science also helped people better understand RNA, viruses and coal. Her work also aided colleague Sir Aaron Klug in his research which led to his Nobel in 1982. Sadly, she died of ovarian cancer on April 16, 1958, at 37. A colleague who did not know of her condition, asked her if she were pregnant, to which she replied, "I wish I were." Even through treatment she continued to work on a team that was working on the polio virus.
The breakthrough by Watson, Crick and Wilkins also came with the assistance of Oswald Avery, a Canadian-born American who was 75 when the double helix was discovered. Nobel laureate Arne Tiselius called Avery the greatest scientist of his time not to win a Nobel.
But the double helix discovery drew yawns. Sydney Brenner, a 2002 Nobel laureate from South Africa, wrote of arriving in Cambridge 50 years earlier in October 1952 when Watson and Crick were working on the double helix. He, too, had read "What Is Life?" Their work excited him and his friends, but not others.
"When the paper appeared a few weeks later, it was not well received by the establishment, composed largely of professional biochemists. They could not see, at the time, how profoundly it would change their subject by offering us a framework for studying the chemistry of biological information," Brenner wrote.
But Watson and his colleagues had unlocked a key to life.
He was 25.
In 1956, he began teaching at Harvard. When he, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel in 1962, he received a full professorship. He turned down the $1,000 raise that went with it. Watson pushed Harvard into emphasizing molecular biology. One of his students was Mario R. Capecchi, a 2007 Nobel laureate.
In 1968, Watson had a best-selling popular non-fiction book of his own, "The Double Helix," which recounted the human side of the work that led to the discover, including observations on the various personalities and conflicts they endured. It turns out that scientists are human beings. Who knew? Neither Crick nor Wilkins appreciated the effort and blocked Harvard Press from publishing it, hence its publication by Scribner.
But that was not his last controversy. On April 10, 1992, he resigned as the head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health after a conflict with NIH Director Bernadine Healy over her attempts to patent gene sequences.
Over the years, he made several provocative remarks,but in 2007, at age 79, he told the Sunday Times of London that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” because "our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”
Linking race and intelligence is taboo in society. Test results reflect education, not intelligence.He immediately regretted his statement and apologized but ours is a rather harsh and unforgiving society. He retired as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. In 2014, he auctioned off his Nobel medal, receiving $4.1 million. Russian tycoon Alisher Usmanov, who made his billions selling mobile phones in Russia, immediately returned the medal to Watson saying he deserved it.
Dr. Watson made a mistake that harmed no one. Why are we shunning him?
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.