The provocative genius of James Watson

The career of James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, has not been without controversy, but his contribution to genetics has been huge

James Watson beside the sculpture The Double Helix by Brian King, at Trinity College Dublin, in 2010. Photograph: Alan Betson

James Watson beside the sculpture The Double Helix by Brian King, at Trinity College Dublin, in 2010. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The geneticist James Watson is one of the best-known scientists of the modern era. Why is it that his name will probably be one of the few to be known 1,000 years from now? Why should we in Ireland take notice of his life and work?

The short answer to the first question is that his contributions to scientific research, teaching, administration and public awareness of science have been immense.

His discovery, with Francis Crick, in the month of his 25th birthday, of the correct model for the structure of DNA is at the core. Among many other things, this discovery led to deep insights into the relationships and evolutionary paths of all known forms of life on Earth.

But that is just one component of the Watson legacy. As he has said himself, the structure of DNA “would have been found anyway”, although it would likely have taken quite some time and may have been piecemeal rather than appearing with the flourish it did. Watson and Crick brought genius to the solution.

Arguably, Watson’s really distinctive impact on science happened AD (after DNA).

On his return to the United States, to Harvard, Watson introduced new teaching and research in biology. He did not put his name on the research publications of his laboratory that revealed important discoveries on how genes are expressed. His style of promoting molecular biology at Harvard made some enemies among classical biologists, although ultimately the molecular advances have proved important for all of biology.

In 1968 Watson became the director of the then financially precarious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. Watson’s leadership and key appointments rescued it, and it became one of the best-known genetics institutions in the world. His initial focus was on cancer-causing viruses, and before long this led to a Nobel prize-winning discovery.

Watson supported the Human Genome Project in the 1980s, successfully arguing for public funding and for open access to the results. He advocated that 5 per cent of the budget should be allocated to ethical studies, and he became its first director. He resigned after two years because he opposed the patenting of naturally occurring DNA sequences (such patents were struck down by the US supreme court in 2013).

 

Pioneering textbooks

Watson’s textbook The Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965) was pioneering in both content and style.

It was followed by The Double Helix (1968), a lively account of the race to discover the structure of DNA, in which Watson and Crick were competing with Linus Pauling. Crick and Maurice Wilkins (whose parents were Irish), the third person to receive a Nobel prize for DNA, did everything they could to block the publication of The Double Helix, but later relented. Some were angry at the cavalier treatment of Rosalind Franklin, who had generated important data. Watson’s epilogue to the book sought to balance what he described as his “contemporaneous” descriptions of her in the main text. Although she died in 1958, before the Nobel prizes were awarded, her scientific reputation is well established in the history of DNA.

The Double Helix was on the New York Times bestsellers list for 18 weeks. In 2012 the Library of Congress included The Double Helix as one of the “books that shaped America”. The saga was developed into a fascinating annotated edition in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nobel prize.

Many other books and hundreds of articles and talks have shown Watson to be one of the most eloquent teachers of the modern era. The story of his family life, Father to Son (2014), tells of a liberal upbringing; it is a model of tenderness.

Watson wants the science of genetics to improve the health and happiness of humankind. He fought hard in the 1970s to block excessive regulation of genetic engineering, a technology that has revolutionised our knowledge of biology and has brought many benefits in medicine and agriculture.

Some regard him as an unreliable, thoughtless, hurtful and unfeeling social commentator. This has not been our experience. He believes passionately in educating the public about science, especially genetics. This is not easy, as the information involved can have major personal and societal implications. Most geneticists find it difficult not to be misunderstood.

Sometimes it does not help your case if you believe in open debate, if you tend to speak frankly, if you have a quick tongue, a sharp turn of phrase, a porous social filter and a sense of humour. Watson is a controversialist, certainly. He expects to be taken on and he believes debate is always useful; consider the title of another of his books, Avoid Boring People.

Some provocative remarks are intended to shift the centre of the argument. What he will not do is deny what he believes is fundamentally true even if it is uncomfortable. “Science comes up with facts which society sometimes finds hard to adjust to,” he has said.

Today we can see ways, some of which are powerful, others quite futuristic, in which genetics can improve our lot, and Watson has been one of the few geneticists willing to discuss awkward ramifications.

He once said: “Some people are fixated on dogs. I’m fixated on humans.” That includes what makes us behave as we do.

 

Supporting Irish science

Watson is proud of his Irish heritage; his maternal great-grandparents were Gleasons from Tipperary. He has been exceptionally generous in supporting Irish science. He has given major talks at celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the double helix in 2003, and the 60th anniversary in 2013.

On the former occasion he unveiled a sculpture, The Double Helix, by Brian King, in Trinity College Dublin, and on the latter a sculpture, What is Life? by Charles Jencks, in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. He spoke at the Bernal Symposium at UCD (2007), described his recent original ideas on cancer at UCC in 2010 and participated in Dublin City of Science in 2012.

His latest gifts to Ireland, proceeds from the sale of his Nobel medal, are two six-figure sums. One went to UCC to support the memory of its founding professor of mathematics, George Boole, who invented what became the mathematics of computation, which is now essential in the study of genetics. The other went to Trinity to support education in genetics.

Above all, he has made us think.

  • John F Atkins is research professor at the Biosciences Institute, UCC. David J McConnell is Fellow Emeritus, Smurfit Institute of Genetics, Trinity College Dublin
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