I was initially excited to watch the PBS Documentary, American Masters: Decoding Watson. That excitement quickly transformed into something else.
The Skinny and the Scandal
As most of you already know, James Watson and Francis Crick were given credit for discovering the double helix model in 1953. In essence, they have become the recognized fathers of DNA, while Rosalind Franklin, the female scientist who actually made the double helix x-rays that were taken from her and shared with Watson and Crick without her permission has been relegated to the sidelines, if not scientific obscurity.
Still, having the opportunity to learn more about the events that surrounded and resulted from the discovery of DNA was my motivation for watching the documentary. Crick (1916-2004) and Franklin (1920-1958) are both deceased, so Watson was the only person left as a first-person involved witness.
Franklin in the saddest of irony died from ovarian cancer at the age of 37, probably as a result of her exposure to high dosages of X-rays while working on the DNA discovery that she never received credit for.
I knew that Watson had previously made some rather incendiary comments regarding homosexuality in 1997 and race versus intelligence in 2007, but I hoped that perhaps we could chalk those up to a combination of age and perhaps confusion. After all, the man was born in 1928 and he did issue a “regret” statement in 2007.
We can all learn, lifelong, Watson included, and given that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a well-respected institution that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Watson hadn’t given him the boot, I interpreted that to mean that Watson had been appropriately schooled – best case. Worst case, that he was sequestered someplace that he couldn’t do any harm and wouldn’t interact with students or the public after the 2007 debacle.
Cold Spring did at that time remove him as chancellor, but Watson was allowed to retain his titles, office and an assistant after he expressed regret for making those 2007 statements. However, regret over making a statement is not at all the same thing as regretting what you did. Not the same as understanding that what came out of your mouth was incorrect, offensive and damaging to people. It’s not the same thing as eliminating your personal prejudice.
Apparently, judging from the PBS documentary, it’s not the same thing as learning to keep your mouth shut either. And it’s certainly not the same thing as actually being sorry you DID something, only sorry you got caught and had to make a superficial “regret” statement. I’m sure Watson did regret the 2007 incident, but not for the right reasons – only because of the inconvenience and blowback it caused him. Because he did it again in the PBS documentary.
As Dr. Joseph Graves, an African-American scientist said about Watson in the documentary, “Racism suspends all rational judgement.”
The Documentary – Decoding Watson
As I watched the documentary, it was extremely difficult to witness as Watson, such a brilliant scientist, soiled himself publicly with his own prejudices. I initially wanted to believe that partly, it was only semantics and that by “genetic losers,” for example, he only meant people who were unfortunate enough in the genetic dice-roll to receive a disease-carrying mutation. After watching the entire segment, I was shocked as offensive statements on any number of topics just kept rolling off his tongue like a toxic waterfall of prejudice, and I certainly couldn’t justify any of his shocking commentary or behavior. I was stunned.
I was surprised that PBS actually aired this segment, but I’m glad they did. They included other academics, such as Dr. Graves, who by their very eloquent presence alone refuted Watson’s blanket racial and gender character assassinations. Of course, that also calls into question the rest of Watson’s works, all of his conclusions, not to mention his ethics.
Furthermore, Watson’s dismissive commentary about Dr. Rosalind Franklin, while appalling, sheds more light on why the male establishment of the time felt it was acceptable to appropriate her work, because she was a female that didn’t fit into a male dominated academic world and wasn’t “nice enough.” Ironically, by Watson’s own admission, Franklin didn’t fit in part because she was concerned that her work would be stolen from her by that very “old boys club” that did the very thing, but he used her lack of acceptance of those practices and inclusion in that “club” to justify those very practices. Textbook classic twisted logic victim-blaming.
After watching the documentary, I sat in shocked silence. The reality of the situation was far worse than I had ever imagined.
I visited the Cavendish lab at Cambridge University several years ago where the discovery of DNA was made. I feel guilty now for how starry-eyed and naive I was at the time. I had no idea what had transpired in those hallowed halls.
I was thrilled and felt in a sense, as a female pioneer in my own right, that I was visiting the scientific genetic equivalent of Mecca.
While the discovery of DNA itself is transcendent and ultimately will either save or destroy humanity, the circumstances surrounding that discovery are certainly less than honorable and become more tainted the more that is revealed.
Cold Spring Lab has since stripped Watson of his titles and severed all ties with him. They should have done that in 2007, but hindsight is 20/20 and they took definitive action now.
I can’t recommend the PBS special, unless you are truly a glutton for punishment, but if you are interested, I do recommend the following articles.
James Watson’s racism is a product of his time – but that doesn’t excuse it by Dr. Joseph Graves, an African-American scientist, educator, researcher and PhD writing an opinion piece for CNN.
Dr. Ricki Lewis, a female geneticist and PhD wrote Genetics pioneer James Watson stripped of final honorary titles over race views for The Genetic Literacy Project. Ricki’s two interviews with Watson were revealing.
I’m sorry that James Watson wasn’t open to truly learning what DNA had to teach, but I’m incredibly glad that he has finally been held to account, at least by someone. Karma finally caught up with him, after several passes.
I hope that the lesson, aside from the scientific aspect of genetics, is that racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of prejudice and discrimination are never acceptable, cannot be justified by science and no one is entitled to use their position irresponsibly or to obtain a “pass” for spreading misinformation and prejudice. In fact, quite the opposite – educators are who young people look up to for inspiration, mentorship and whose behavior they emulate. People in Watson’s position should be held to the highest of standards.
To quote Cold Spring Harbor Labs, whose entire statement you can read here, “The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”
I applaud Cold Spring for (finally) stepping up to the plate, but that’s not enough.
Additionally, I think that both Watson and Crick should be stripped of their Nobel Prizes in light of what initially happened in 1953 and has since been revealed.
Dr. Rosalind Franklin was excluded from the Nobel in 1962 for the discovery of DNA which would not have occurred without her work. In order to receive a Nobel Prize, the recipient must be living. She conveniently wasn’t.
Franklin had already died at that time, but given the circumstances involved in both the discovery of DNA, the misuse of her data and her death (probably) resulting from her contributing research, if the Nobel Prize Committee cannot find a way to right this perpetual burr-under-the-saddle wrong for Dr. Franklin, they need to revoke the prizes of both Crick and Watson. All three should be in, or all three should be out. Dr. Franklin should not be excluded.
A Nobel Prize has never been revoked before, but then again, DNA had never been discovered before either. If DNA can be discovered, and all of the other amazing discoveries honored by the Nobel Prize, then certainly the committee can find a way to correct this injustice, one way or another.
Perhaps Karma isn’t done quite yet.