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.
The father of DNA says he still believes in a link between race, intelligence. His lab just stripped him of his titles by The Washington Post
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.
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Sad story, indeed.
Thanks for sharing your opinion; as a professional in the field of genetics you know much more about it than those of us who are familiar with his history of spouting all that trash. Let us hope they are stripped of the prize and Dr Franklin is given the credit she deserves, even posthumously.
Well Put Roberta….
An idiot but a man of his times I am afraid the future is improving but not before time.
I think that you underestimate the level of racism in Scandinavia, in which I live.
Anecdotally, I haven’t been impressed by the IQ of the locals for the last 20 years, no matter what the White Supremacists claim. I often find myself thinking that those who came up with the “dumb blonde” stereotype must have been around here for a visit. Lots of problems under a veneer of respectability, let’s put it that way. :-/
You mean like my family from Gotland and two of my sons one of which gets his Phd in Philosophy form Univ of Miami next year. Or my granddaughter who is a Phi Beta Kappa at at Stanford.
The other a Phd from the Max Planck institute in Particle Physics and spent three years with other dumb blondes on the Hadron Collider. Maybe Niels Bohr was a racist. I think you are the one projecting race animus .
Wow, does Rosalind Franklin have a descendant who can receive the Nobel on her behalf?
She never married, but I’m sure someone could be found.
Rosalind Franklin was from England and had four siblings, so perhaps they had children and grandchildren.
She is one of the candidates for the back of the next £50 so it is heartwarming that the UK establishment remembers and recognises her. She may not be chosen as Stephen Hawking and Mary Seacole are also nominees.
I entirely agree with your condemnation of Watson, but you also condemn Crick without any evidence. Why do you hold this position? I would be interested to know the truth about Crick.
A female friend of mine went to some of Crick’s famous parties, and she really liked him. She saw no evidence in him of racism or misogyny.
As for Franklin’s contribution, finally everyone agrees that she had an equal role in the discovery of DNA. If she had been alive the prize should (would?) have gone to Crick, Watson and Franklin rather than Crick, Watson and Wilkins.
Did you watch the PBS documentary?
I live in England, so cannot access the documentary unfortunately, so I would be grateful if you could tell me what their views on Crick are. As for Watson, I considered him a stupid b*****d long before this documentary, because of his hateful racist and misogynistic views!
The documentary itself didn’t actually give an opinion on Crick, but Watson said that from the beginning, the first thing they said was that this was worthy of a Nobel. Not that the 3 of them, including Rosalind would receive one. He never said the Crick agree with him on the other positions, meaning intelligence, etc. – but it was clear that Crick was complicit in the misappropriation of Franklin’s work. Also, if you use Chrome in the incognito window, can you view the video?
I too was looking forward to the documentary on Watson, but the further it went the more horrified I was. In the end I was left thinking Watson is a very sad, small minded, and not very intelligent man, whose biggest achievement was the theft of someone else’s work.
He hasn’t even got the guts to back down from his racist, homophobic and sexist opinions. Or perhaps he understands genetics so poorly that he actually believes his twisted viewpoints. Cold Spring only gave him the boot when he became more of a PR liability than an asset. So no gold stars for them on the “adhered to high principles” line on their chart. He certainly doesn’t deserve the Nobel Prize.
I don’t think Karma has caught up with him yet, but that time is coming. Buddhists believe you can move backward or forward in time when you are reincarnated. It tickles me to think he might be Dr. Rosalind Franklin next time around. Wouldn’t that be poetic justice? 😀
I think you are a bit hard on the Cavendish. Xray crystallography was invented there by Lawrence Bragg, Australian born son of WH Bragg, both of whom jointly won the Nobel for Physics when Lawrence was 25, the youngest Nobel laureate so far. And it has had many other Nobel winners, and a profound affect on modern life. It is where the first atom was cracked in the 1920s; it is where George Thomson and Mark Oliphant formed the MAUD committee, from which the Manhattan Project originated in WWII.
As for eugenics, its one benefit was the development of some of the tools of modern statistical analysis. Sir RA Fisher, who invented many of these tools, was a believer in eugenics- a not uncommon thing in 20s and 30s Western science-while working on problems of interest to agricultural research (and very good work it was too), and population studies. They were not racists as we know them, but people trying to explain differences as they saw them, scientifically. The irony for the likes of Watson is that DNA analysis has exposed the fundamental flaw in racism: race doesn’t exist.
Since the founding of the Nobel Prizes by Alfred Nobel in 1895, 29 members of the Cavendish have won one of the illustrious prizes. Note that not all of the Prizes are in physics.
Lord Rayleigh (Physics, 1904)
Sir J.J. Thomson (Physics, 1906)
Lord Ernest Rutherford (Chemistry, 1908)
Sir Lawrence Bragg (Physics, 1915)
Charles Barkla (Physics, 1917)
Francis Aston (Chemistry, 1922)
Charles Wilson (Physics, 1927)
Arthur Compton (Physics, 1927)
Sir Owen Richardson (Physics, 1928)
Sir James Chadwick (Physics, 1935)
Sir George Thomson (Physics, 1937)
Sir Edward Appleton (Physics, 1947)
Lord Patrick Blackett (Physics, 1948)
Sir John Cockcroft (Physics, 1951)
Ernest Walton (Physics, 1951)
Francis Crick (Physiology or Medicine, 1962)
James Watson (Physiology or Medicine, 1962)
Max Perutz (Chemistry, 1962)
Sir John Kendrew (Chemistry, 1962)
Dorothy Hodgkin (Chemistry, 1964)
Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973)
Sir Martin Ryle (Physics, 1974)
Antony Hewish (Physics, 1974)
Sir Nevill Mott (Physics, 1977)
Philip Anderson (Physics, 1977)
Pjotr Kapitsa (Physics, 1978)
Allan Cormack (Physiology or Medicine, 1979)
Sir Aaron Klug (Chemistry, 1982)
Norman Ramsey (Physics, 1989)
The problem with eugenics is that it exceeds racism, goes beyond science, and seeks to create a better society by ‘reducing’ the number of poor, uneducated, disabled (mentally and physically) and potential criminals. Difference considered undesirable by elite groups is playing God, not doing science. Unethical practices in scientific studies and their applications are serious problems. While Watson seems to typify these, it would be naive to think these are problems only of the past. Eugenics is less obvious today.
I wish that eugenics, especially racialized eugenics, was less obvious today – but indigenous and Black women are still sterilized against their will after the births of their children at hospitals around the United States and Canada, as early as last year, 2018. We have a lot of work to do still.
Some sources for you, so you can research further: https://rewire.news/article/2018/12/03/forced-sterilization-indigenous-lawsuit/
I think the condemnation of Crick was because he & Watson took credit for someone else’s work
Watson’s opinions are indeed a stain on his reputation, but nevertheless the intuition he and Crick had, that led to their proposal of the structure of DNA (note – not its discovery – that was in the 19th century!) is still one of the most dramatic and far reaching scientific achievements of the last 100 years. Nobel prizes are awarded for exactly that type of work, regardless of the social acceptability of the recipient. and obviously regardless of their future behaviour – which cannot diminish their Nobel achievements. Yes, Rosalind Franklin’s contribution was not recognized, but her primary conribution was generation of the Xray data – she did not interpret that data in a way that led to the structure of DNA. Many, many Nobel prizes have been awarded without recognizing the contribution of collaborators. Unfair, but that is how it is. Note that some Nobel Prizes have been awarded for somewhat doubrful achievements – e.g. the Nobel Peace prize for Barack Obama – before he had time to make a difference in our world. Indeed Obama himself expressed surprise at this award. I would suggest that whatever Obama achieved in international diplomacy (the reason for the award), his efforts have not had a Nobel-worthy lasting effect. But that is no reason to withdraw Obama’s or Watson’s prizes. Like most Nobels, these prizes were awarded because AT THE TIME, the recipients were worthy of them.
I am approving this comment but for people considering a response to this comment, I will not approve any comments that are political in nature. Regarding this comment, I think there is a significant difference between a diplomacy Nobel and one having to do with science. There was actually a call for one previous Nobel to be rescinded but it was not.
My inclusion of reference to Barack Obama’s Nobel prize appears to have diverted attention from the main point of my comments – and so I apologize for inclusion of this reference – clearly not pertinent to a discussion of a science Nobel. One of my key points was that Watson and Crick’s (W&C) 1953 Nature paper was a proposal for the molecular structure of DNA, built on a variety of concepts from others, including Linus Pauling and Wilkins, Franklin and coworkers. All were acknowledged in the Nature paper. This is typical of new scientific discoveries – built on a body of research by others. Although Xray diffraction data played a role in W&C’s proposal, they noted in the paper: “We were not aware of the details of the [Xray] results presented there when we devised our structure, which rests mainly though not entirely on published experimental data and stereochemical arguments.”
A key suggestion in the paper was how the W&C structure could explain DNA replication: “It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Note “postulated” – there was no immediate acceptance of W&C’s molecular structure postulate – and it was only confirmed several years later as a result of continued research by Maurice Wilkins (and others), thus resulting in a Nobel prize for the three of them 9 years after the publication of the Nature paper. Note that Nobel prize rules limit the number of laureates for any one award to 3 people. The years of subsequent work by Wilkins were crucial to the confirmation of W&C’s postulate, and clearly more important than Franklin’s Xray diffraction contribution. So even if Franklin had lived, it seems unlikely that she would have been among the 3 laureates for the DNA Nobel. Finally, yes Watson’s opinions are clearly unacceptable today, but his and Crick’s research conclusions were undoubtedly one of the most impactful ever. So, lets ignore Watson’s racial slurs, rather than give them attention they do not deserve, and focus on the benefits the W&C “postulate” is bringing to mankind.
I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. It’s not just his racial slurs, but his entire attitude of genetic superiority of white, straight, males that are not “genetic losers” over everyone else. It’s also not a single occurrence, but a pattern over decades. In his position of influence, he has a responsibility he is not fulfilling.
As information, I want to mention that there is a Rosalind Franklin Medical School in the North Chicago Area. Also, the Court Theater in Chicago is presenting from January 17 to February 17 a play “Photograph 51” by Anna Ziegler, on the life of Rosalind Franklin and the events around her contributions to the discovery of the DNA structure: firstname.lastname@example.org
As a disclaimer, I am not connected to the Court Theater and will see the play in two weeks from today.
That Watson not only stole credit for the DNA discovery, as well as saw its eugenics potential, is truly chilling. It’s the very thing that makes people paranoid about testing.
Great science, like any other human endeavor, is done by flawed individuals. They can be noble or petty, generous or jealous, humble or arrogant, wise or foolish. Make them heroes at your own risk.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. We can only hope that the increasing number of women in the sciences will change that culture over time (hopefully more than the culture changing the values of those women).
Thank you for sharing this amazing film!
Watson is no better or worse than other bigots such as Richard Dawkins concerning the intelligence of the Religious.
IQ ‘Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one’s intelligence and/or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. . (Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2006, p. 129)
Whether you can escape consequences for saying or writing hateful things about others depends upon the politics of the moment. BY the way karma as it is used in common parlance is not a correct understanding of dharma. not to lecture but as Buddhist scholar just a FYI
In super simple terms, the Buddhist view of karma is that it is intentional actions and the results or consequences that arise from those actions. So in this case, it’s actually being used correctly for a change – James Watson has been putting wrong speech out into the world and is now seeing the results.
I saw a TV presentation about the discovery of DNA many years ago. Where the three active persons seemed to battle about the structure of DNA. Ms. Franklin was portrayed as trying to convince anyone of her discovery, of the double Helix structure. No one would listen, especially Watson and Crick who worked together. I wondered why her name is never mentioned anymore. It was indicated she died of cancer having never convinced anyone. Her data however clearly convinced Watson and Crick after her death. Her absence also seems to have convinced them they could take credit and never be found out.
One of the more horrifying things regarding this is reading the comments by armchair scientists on reddit where I originally saw one of the articles you’d linked. The astounding leaps of logic people will make to justify the supposed lack of intelligence of black people vs white people, and then as if to add more salt to the wound, bring up black people’s ‘supposed’ dominance in physical prowess and athletics, as if it’s an equal trade off. The amount of dehumanization that goes through their minds to make that leap is just incredible, really. There’s a damn reason Jordan Peele wrote Get Out. People like this are why. They’re so far up their own asses they can’t acknowledge or even realize they’re being insulting. It’s chilling 🙁
I am grateful for DNA research and its discovery no matter who discovered it. Regarding the racist comments about intelligence, I’ll share a personal story. I once worked with a man named Hosea (surname withheld). He was a young black man who mentored me and others in our early days working in one of the southeast’s largest computer data centers.
We were all southern white men and women. Many of us remembered the segregated south. Hosea taught us things so vastly technical it was difficult for us to comprehend. He was a genius who also had a near photographic memory. When vendor engineers came from major computer companies to help us, it was Hosea who taught them, not the other way around. He always knew more than they did.
I suspect there are a lot of brilliant black men and women who’ve been denied an opportunity to prove themselves. I suspect anyone who thinks intelligence is related to race has probably led an isolated life. Pity they never met a genius like Hosea. On the other hand, I’m not sure any of them are smart enough to understand him.
Have you seen the Hidden Figures movie about the brilliant black women who worked for NASA during John Glenn’s launch into space?
Yes, and I loved it.
Out of curiosity I found the original publication in Nature. Watson and Crick’s first article was published in April 1953 and they do acknowledge unpublished data from Drs. Wilkins and Franklin. Published in the same issue following their article were two highly technical DNA x-ray crystallography articles, one by Wilkins et al and one by Franklin et al. Franklin’s article included the famous Photo 51, which had been taken by Gosling, her doctoral student. So her contribution was right there in the same issue in a separate article under her name. To publish is to get credit. Interesting, too, that she had that photo for the better part of a year and for whatever reason had not published an analysis of it until it appeared as a companion piece to Watson and Crick. She had a piece of the structure puzzle but not the complete picture.
Once started the retroactive reassessment of scientific Nobel Prizes could go on forever. For every prize awarded there would no doubt be someone in the wings claiming, perhaps legitimately, that they too should have been part of the prize. It’s nothing new. “Glory Enough for All” is a film based on the difficult road to the discovery of insulin. If even half of the film is true the difficulty was not necessarily because of the actual science but due to the personality clashes, egos and rivalries of the “colleagues” involved. The awarding of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1923 only made it worse. Everybody knows Banting and Best discovered insulin, right? The Nobel went to Banting and Macleod, who was Banting’s boss. Best, his research assistant who did much of the lab work, was not nominated nor was Collip, the fellow who developed the process for purifying insulin. Banting was furious and shared his financial award with Best while Macleod did the same with Collip. Even so, the citation forever remains Banting and Macleod..
The structure of carbon spheres – “buckeyballs” was rightly ascribed to scientists. But when they started research, production of buckeyballs to work on was tiny and nowhere enough to conduct meaningful research.
But a couple of medical technicians had developed a means of creating them in abundance some years before – to assist in imaging the lungs.
The scientists used their method. Not only they but all scientists since have refused to acknowledge this input, without which their work could not have been successful.
But scientists are not alone.
A certain actor won an Oscar for portraying the struggle of someone still very much alive, from that person’s book and with their active assistance.
No mention in the Oscar acceptance that year. Nor the following year, when the same actor won again and could have righted the omission.
I cannot watch that actor’s films.
Analyses of geniuses has shown that they (and “they” means men, because only men are in the studies) shut off one part of themselves in order to focus on whatever brings them greatness. Some who were driven by wanting to do good for mankind often expected the complete sacrifice of close family and friends, and completely ignored their suffering.
Some of Watson’s personal flaws were evident in his book about the discovery of the structure of DNA, which I read decades ago.