Friday, June 3, 2016

The complex legacy of James Watson

Watson & Crick with their DNA model

James Watson was something of a wunderkind. He started college at age 15 and was only 24 when he published the structure of the DNA double helix with Francis Crick in April 1953. From the beginning, the DNA project was a hotbed of controversy and rivalries. The biggest controversy surrounded Rosalind Franklin and her X-ray crystallography image Photograph 51. Essentially, Watson took Franklin’s data without her permission; the image was the lynch pin in decoding the DNA double helix. This discovery was the basis for his Nobel Prize in medicine in 1962.

Goldblum as Watson in
The Race for the Double Helix
Watson has always been a polarizing figure in molecular biology. He was brash, arrogant, and oftentimes sexist; to give you a sense of his character, he was played adeptly by Jeff Goldblum in The Race for the Double Helix in 1987.  His Wikipedia entry includes a laundry list of controversial comments, which run the gamut of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. His comments in 2007 were the final straw for his career; he said "[I am] 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." Those comments caused him to lose many of his academic appointments and speaking engagements. The biggest loss to Watson was his position as chancellor at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL); he did stay on at the CSHL in an emeritus position.

Watson later attempted to distance himself from the comments, saying that he is not racist “in a conventional way”, but the damage was already done. In 2014, Watson made headlines with his decision to auction off his Nobel Prize medal, which was the first time in history the medal from a living Nobel winner would be sold. Watson claimed that his comments made him “an unperson”. He planned to sell the medal to return to public life, donate to the scientific research institutes that made his career, and maybe buy a David Hockney painting. The medal sold for $4.1 M to a Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who later returned the medal to Watson with the caveat that a portion of the money should be donated to science (no mention of the Hockney painting). In the end, while Watson succeeded in getting his cash flow problem resolved, he was unable to erase the damage his controversial comments had done.

Out of curiosity, I decided to investigate the other side of the story. Of course, it was rather difficult to find people who defended Watson and his behavior (I refuse to link to those defenses that are based on the idea that Watson was just another victim of the PC police). One defense I read suggested that Watson's behavior could be explained by his over reliance on science to solve the problems of the world. I find this conclusion unsatisfying. Rather, I prefer the idea, that Watson cultivated an image as a gadfly or a loose cannon, but the quality that he once cultivated became part of his nature.

Honestly, this character has generally been good for his career. If you look at his publication record, it was not nearly as strong as Franklin's or Crick's. And yet, he was chosen as the head of the CSHL and as a figure head for the Human Genome Project. Despite his decries of being "an unperson", he still contributes opinions to various platforms and is called for comment on stories in the New York Times (most recently in this great piece about Otto Warburg, which I frankly felt did not need his contribution). In addition, you can still find the occasional mention of him giving lectures (most recently at Harvard in Feb 2016, where he lectured on how to achieve success). 

The legacy of James Watson shows us how an accomplished scientist can still be an awful person. While most scientists I know still get excited to see the old man shambling about during summer meetings at Cold Spring Harbor, they know it is best to avoid talking to him.

This post is based on something I put together for a post on r/redditdayof on the theme of "Watson".

Additional Sources: Opinion from scientist Adam Rutherford in The Guardian; Slate article Watson Throws a Fit

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