James Watson on DNA

James Watson is most likely the most famous living scientist.  Everyone knows that he, along with Francis Crick discovered the DNA molecule back in 1953, 60 years ago.  In 1962, those two along with Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize for their discovery.

As we remember scientists and their discoveries, I think we often miss the human element of the process.  How they feel and felt at the time, what they think and thought, the softer side of science.

Watson Crick 1953

This photos shows Francis Crick and James Watson together in 1953 at Cambridge, from the Collection of the Cold Springs Harbor Lab Archives.

CNN interviewed Watson recently, and you can read the article and see the video here.

I found some of his quotes to be very interesting.

“All you can say is that you were very lucky. You were born at the right time and your parents gave you books when you were young.”

I’m all for that.  I was and am an avid reader and I instilled that in both of my children as well.

Watson equates his passion for DNA and genetic research to his ancestor’s passion for the Gold Rush.  I can empathize with that – once the DNA bug bites you, it’s lifelong and unrelenting!  Passion fuels discovery of any type.  Watson discovered a very different kind of gold – the elixir of all humanity.

Of the day they discovered DNA, he says, “We went to lunch.  We had to tell people we’d done something important, but they didn’t know what we were saying.”  That’s certainly not the case today.  “Done something important” is an incredible understatement – perhaps the strongest understatement I’ve ever seen.

He said he felt queasy when they told everyone within hearing distance that they had found the secret of life.  Well, making the discovery of the millennium will do that to you!

I understand how he felt though.  I get the same look he must have received when I explain to my family how excited that I am that we’ve found a new haplogroup.  Thank heavens for our genetic genealogy community today.

Watson’s reaction to the Eureka moment of discovery, “All we could say when we got it: It’s so beautiful.”

watson crick dna model

DNA model built by Crick and Watson in 1953 is on display in the National Science Museum of London.  You can read the amazingly short paper published in Nature here or an annotated version here.

dna diagram from paperAt right is the diagram of DNA from the 1953 paper.  Its elegance, simplicity and symmetry is stunningly beautiful.

For those interested, Nature compiled what they consider to be the 5 classic DNA papers of which the Watson/Crick paper is one, of course.

Interestingly, Watson says he doesn’t want to die before he sees cancer cured and feels it could happen.  I certainly hope so.  Whenever this does happen, you know that genetics will certainly play a prominent role in the cure.  Discoveries in medicine as well as in other genetics fields like molecular biology, evolutionary genetics, population genetics and genetic genealogy continue to be made every day – all stemming from this monumental discovery in 1953.

Watson says of himself, “I wanted to understand the world about me better.  I wanted to do something important with my life.”  Do you think he succeeded?



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12 thoughts on “James Watson on DNA

  1. I think he succeeded…and then some! Cancer is a lofty goal. One must learn how to clean the insides without destroying the good cells in the process. Mining, for example, exposed people to the dusts from Cadmium; a known carcinogen. We’ve been mining and smelting for a long time. Then there’s the chemical carcinogens like TCDD dioxin and TCE and all the dioxin-like chemicals found in the bug and weed killers. We eat them and breathe them, daily. Can chelation therapy work? Is there a better process yet undiscovered? I don’t know, but I feel leery of the radiation and chemotherapy currently in use, personally. It doesn’t make sense to me. I do wish him luck, though. What better accomplishment than to erase the pain that others may have caused? That would make him a UNIVERSAL HERO. Just imagine the profound affects that removing cancer from the world would bring to every family affected. Godspeed.

  2. Roberta

    Thanks for an excellent article and more importantly thanks for bringing engaging thought to my daily routine. It is something I have missed greatly since leaving the grad school and post doctoral environment for a job in the work force.

  3. Thank you, Roberta, for drawing everyone’s attention to the work of Watson and Crick. Their popular book, The Double Helix, is exciting and demonstrates much of what is necessary to make a truly great discovery. Although it’s been decades since I read it, I remember some aspects vividly. Watson was a zoologist, and Crick was a physicist. Their very different approaches to the challenge of discovering the structure of DNA may well have been what enabled their success. Then there was Rosalind Franklin, a chemist, who was also part of the race, as well as Maurice Wilkins.

    For the personal side, as well as the scientific adventure, I recommend that everyone who has an interest in how a few people can create a scientific revolution should take some time to read the book.


    R. Lorece Smith, lorece@lorece.com Stay informed, follow your dreams, and be kind.Date: Tue, 2 Jul 2013 16:33:09 +0000 To: lorece@lorece.com

    • James Watson has had many “Paula Deen” moments. But from a scientist of his stature, these transgressions are far worse.

      I agree with the merits of what Rosalind Franklin contributed to science. However, I disagree with Watson on his rants about African Americans, the Irish, women, etc.

      In March 2013, Watson referred to the “Historic curse of the Irish, which is not alcohol, it’s not stupidity. But it’s ignorance.”


      I have an email from Gary Robbins, the San Diego reporter, who said that there was no context around that quote about the Irish … Watson just blurted it out.

      Later on this year when Watson was in Dublin, Ireland, another reporter took him to task about his Irish comments. http://www.irishcentral.com/news/James-Watson-DNA-discoverer-says-Irish-downfall-is-not-alcohol-but-ignorance-205568221.html and http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/tenses-diffuse-tensions-of-watsons-ramblings-229896.html

      “The tenses made all the difference to the tension created by his comments, because the outspoken 85-year-old stressed later that he was talking about the past and in particular his run-in with the former head of the US National Institutes of Health, the late Bernadine Healy.” “Healy, a third generation Irish- American, was all for patenting genes when Watson was head of the Human Genome Project in 1992 and Watson, who described the idea as “sheer lunacy”, quit.”

      So Watson does have a history of bashing women (Healy and Franklin are examples) and the Irish as well as Africans / African Americans. Gates did take Watson to task for his comments and views about Africans. http://www.theroot.com/views/science-racism

      See also: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10099986/Rosalind-Franklin-would-have-exploded-with-fury-if-she-knew-her-data-had-been-used-for-DNA-discovery-says-sister.html

      So, before completely celebrate a luminary such as James Watson, it’s important in this discourse to look at their good as well as their bad.

      • Hi George,

        Clearly, I don’t disagree with what you’ve said. But my goal in this article wasn’t so much to celebrate Watson himself, but to look at the personal side of the discovery. And he’s the only one of that team left to share with us. I was interested in how they felt, what they thought, what they did, those kinds of things. I think as a rule, we get very focused on the outcome, especially with a discovery of this magnitude, and lose sight entirely of the human side of discovery – the why, the reactions, etc. That’s what I really found fascinating about the interview and about his commentary. I’ve heard some of his other comments and opinions, and I clearly disagree with them, but it is his opinion regardless, and does not diminish his discovery. None of his opinions and/or political incorrectness changes the fact that without the momentous discovery of DNA, much of what we know today about mankind would not have been subsequently “discovered” either. It’s somewhat ironic that in spite of his opinions, subsequent DNA research has done a great deal to facilitate equality, not inequality. DNA is the great uniter, not the great divider:)


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