I knew I would soon auction off my 1962 Gold Nobel Medal the moment I learned that Francis Crick’s Gold Medal, May 2013, had been so sold for more than two million dollars. Most importantly its sale would let me retain its brass replica that now lies upon a trophy-flled table in our home Ballybung’s library. At the Enskillan Bank during Nobel Week to receive my prize check, I was told to keep my gold medal in a bank vault as the occasional earlier Nobel medals had been stolen for their still appreciable value when melted down. Prior to my transferring it to Christies, I have had it in my hands only on the several occasions when I brought additional new items for safe storage.
My check for $17,000, one third of the 1962 Nobel Prize monies, was soon used as a down payment toward the purchase of a modest 19th century wooden house near Harvard, off Brattle on Brown Street. Never ever living in it, it was sold in 1973 to provide a down payment toward a vacation home and land on Martha’s Vineyard Seven Gates Farm in West Tisbury. There I, my wife Liz, whom I married in 1968, six years after my Nobel Prize, and our two sons, Rufus and Duncan, spent part of each summer until 1984. Then in turn it was sold to purchase the terraced house in Westminster, London, where we were then living during a 1983-84 sabbatical year to let me focus on the writing of a much expanded 4th edition of my Molecular Biology of the Gene. 17 Vincent Square’s possession gave us a perfect English base for the next decade. Then I gave it to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory [CSHL] as half of a personal donation of more than two million dollars that built the regency styled Ballybung, the house that I and my family moved into upon my 1994 assumption of the new role as President. Without saving my Nobel Prize monies through successively acquiring our high quality pieces of property, a President’s home would never have graced the residential northern end of the CSHL campus.
Nor without a necessarily much smaller earlier philanthropic donation would I and Liz have been able to have a proper home upon my 1968 taking over the Directorship of Long Island’s North Shore Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Thirty thousand dollars, that came from my five year earlier $2000 investment in stock of the clever chemist Carl Djerassi’s new birth control company, Syntex, let a local builder provide the then near bankrupt CSHL a totally rebuilt, air-conditioned, 3 bedroomed Osterhout cottage. We resided there when our two sons Rufus and Duncan were born in nearby Huntington Hospital. Soon after Manny Delbruck and I gave monies to CSHL to build two hard court tennis courts. To make my $15,000 donation, I sold “Thorn Cross,” an earlier purchase from New York’s Marlborough Gallery, painted by the highly talented English artist Graham Sutherland. Then it was too big for our modest Cold Spring Harbor home’s walls, rising later to my dismay many fold in value. By then the CSHL fnancial picture had radically improved through its early 1970s movement into high quality research on tumor viruses and through two major philanthropic gifts by our neighbor Charles Sammis Robertson. So between 1974 and 1994 we could live in no longer much rundown 1806 Airslie, but one immeasurably improved through the far-ranging imagination of the Michigan-born Charles Moore, then Dean of Yale’s Architectural School.
The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory will be 125 years old next year, and I have long wanted to enrich further its architecturally unique new upper campus with more high class paintings and sculptures to match the frontier science being done within its buildings’ walls. Earlier, as I gradually provided most of the art for the walls of our elegant new 1996 Grace Auditorium, I was flush from text book royalties and the selling of biotechnology stocks. Now, however, at age 86 my income is largely limited to my salary as a scientist working toward the cure of incurable cancer. So my making further meaningful philanthropic gifts not only to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory but also to the University of Chicago, which taught me the need to think deeply and to Clare College Cambridge, where I lived when Francis Crick and I on February 28, 1953 put together the basic features of DNA double helix, depends upon my somehow coming up again with big bucks.
Now I plan to give away to charitable bodies at least one half of my after taxes auction proceeds. My early days as a youthful ornithologist have made me long focused on the preservation of our local Long Island landscape. Hopefully sizable auction monies will go to the North Shore Land Alliance as I continue to give meaningful monies to local Long Island charities from my yearly salaries as a well-paid scientist. And I would like to mark my DNA of 52% Irish origin with gifts that allow outstanding Trinity College Dublin graduates pursue PhDs at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s unique graduate school. Only through continued major philanthropy will the academic world provide environments where great ideas and decency prevail.
17 October 2014
"It was the most important of the understandable Nobel prizes.”
James Watson doesn’t mince words. He has always believed that truth is beauty and beauty simple. To him, the “understandable” Nobels are the elite ones, significant because they can be grasped by anyone. Only a few Nobel medals recognize achievements that an average reader might name: radium, insulin, relativity, quantum mechanics, perhaps a few more—but even at nearly a half-pound of 23-karat gold apiece, the “understandable” Nobels could all be cradled in the hands.
Of the lot, none has a bigger impact on our lives today than the DNA double helix. Its elegantly twining strands are the most recognizable scientific image since the Bohr atom, that ubiquitous emblem of the nuclear age. Yet where the atom symbolized both unlimited energy and unfathomable destruction, the double helix represents heredity, medicine, human nature, identity. In the public mind, as well as in much of the scientific community, your DNA is you. Once the puzzle of DNA’s structure was solved, an explanation for how heredity works immediately crystallized. The answer was simple enough to explain to a 12-year-old boy.
“My Dear Michael,” Francis Crick wrote to his young son in March 1953, “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery.” It had long been known that genes were carried on the chromosomes, and that the chromosomes duplicated each time a cell divided; thus the genes were passed on to a new cell or, with sperm and eggs, a new person. Genes, it was now clear, were made of DNA. Now Crick could explain to Michael how the copying occurred. The letter, auctioned by Christie’s last year for six million dollars, the highest sum ever paid for any letter at auction, provides perhaps the clearest explanation of the double helix ever written.
DNA, wrote Crick, consists of two complementary strands, two molecular chains bound lengthwise to each other, running in opposite directions. Each link of each chain has three parts: a phosphate group, a ribose sugar, and a base, abbreviated A, C, G, or T. The strands pair at the bases, each base-pair forming a rung of a chain ladder. The phosphates hook up one to the next to form the ladder’s rails. The ladder twists gently like a spiral staircase, or helix.
“Now the exciting thing,” he continued, his tone exaggerated like a bedtime adventure story, “is that while there are four different bases, we find we can only put certain pairs of them together.” G only pairs with C; A only with T. “Now on one chain, one can have the bases in any order, but if the order is fixed, then the order on the other chain is also fixed,” he wrote. “It is like a code. If you are given one set of letters you can write down the others.” This code was the key. Genes are made of particular fixed sequences of bases. “You can now see how Nature makes copies of the genes. Because if the two chains unwind into two separate chains, and if each chain then makes another chain come together on it...we shall get two copies where we had one before.”
So elegant was the concept that Watson and Crick could explain its outlines to their scientific colleagues in a mere 800 words, in the flagship article in a flotilla of four published in the journal Nature on 28 April 1953. This article closed with one of the classic sentences of the history of science, a model of arch understatement: “It has not escaped our attention that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” Or, as Crick hollered into the Eagle pub in Cambridge: “We have found the secret of life!”
By 1962, scientists had incorporated the structure into their thinking and begun to tease out its implications. No one in the field doubted its importance. In October, after the Nobel Prize announcement, the great bacterial geneticist François Jacob had written to Watson: “For all of us it was obvious that you should have been awarded a Nobel Prize already a long time ago.” (Jacob would win his own three years later.) The award from Stockholm, then, was a grand public acknowledgment that DNA was the emblem of a new science: molecular biology. By the end of the decade, those three initials would be familiar to anyone who read a good newspaper.
Watson went on to become DNA’s greatest champion. He wrote the first textbook of the new science, the innovative and highly influential Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965). He followed it with a memoir of the discovery, The Double Helix (1968)—one of the best-selling popular science books of all time. That year, he assumed the directorship of a ramshackle, destitute, marine-biology station located on Long Island, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology, which he turned into a global powerhouse of DNA science. In the late 1980s, he spearheaded the Human Genome Project—biology’s moonshot—which by 2003 produced the first complete sequence of the DNA in human chromosomes. And in 2007 he became one of the first to sequence his own genome, opening the door to the age of personal genomics, which promises to transform medicine. A strikingly original writer and an often-intuitive thinker with a knack for defining the vanguard of molecular biology, Watson became biology’s leading public intellectual, instantly recognizable, the Einstein of the genome age. A surprising twist for a lanky, awkward Midwesterner whose interest in science began with bird-watching.
On April 6, 1928, in Chicago, James Dewey Watson, an accounts manager for a correspondence school, and his wife, Bonnie Jean Mitchell Watson, had a son: James Dewey Watson, Jr. A sister, Elizabeth Lauchlin—known as Betty—followed two years later. The Watson kids grew up at 7922 Luella Ave., a two-bedroom bungalow on the South Shore, a lakeside neighborhood, an hour streetcar ride from Chicago’s commercial center (the Loop). Jim, Sr., had left Oberlin College after only a year to support himself after his father made bad bets on the stock market. Yet he remained a passionate lifelong learner and was an avid naturalist. The Watsons’ means were modest, politics liberal, bookshelves stuffed. Jim, Sr. took his son birding in the parks and marshes around Lake Michigan,
instilling in him an appreciation of nature’s beauty.
Bright and good at being a student, he skipped ahead by a year in elementary school. In 1942, he made three appearances as a radio Quiz Kid, earning enough money to buy himself a nice pair of binoculars. The next year, at age fifteen, he went to college. One of his father’s friends at Oberlin had been the brilliant and charismatic Robert M. Hutchins. In 1929, at age 30, Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago and immediately began implementing a daring set of reforms. The boldest were developing a four-year generalist bachelor’s degree (Four Year College) centered on the great books of Western civilization, and in 1942, a program to enable bright tenth-graders to escape high school’s monotonous rote learning and enter the U. of C. where they could begin actually thinking. Watson was among the first to be so selected. Beginning in June 1943 (thus forgoing summer vacation), he earned his Bachelor of Philosophy in 1946 and his B.S. in Science in 1947 (ØßK). Then in the fall of 1947, he matriculated into the PhD program in genetics at the University of Indiana, completing that in three years. In 1950, barely 22, he was Dr. Watson. Both the rigor and the speed of his education are important: “College is for learning how to think,” he wrote in Avoid Boring People (2007). Watson learned how to focus on concepts and where to find the facts needed to back them up, without cluttering his mind with forgettable information.
Another thing college is for, he wrote, is narrowing one’s intellectual objectives. In his third year at the University of Chicago, Watson audited a spring course (Physiological Genetics) taught by the great geneticist Sewall Wright after he read a slim volume called What Is Life?, by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. The combination gave Watson his quest: he wanted to understand what a gene was. Not as a metaphor, but in terms of physics and chemistry.
While on a postdoctoral fellowship to study biochemistry in Copenhagen, he attended a conference in Naples, where he heard a paper on the crystal structure of DNA by the Englishman Maurice Wilkins. It was increasingly clear that DNA was the material of the gene, and Wilkins was on the scent of its atomic structure. Instantly Watson saw the power of Wilkins’s approach, known as X-ray crystallography. In the fall of 1951, he went by boat across the North Sea to Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, the cradle of nuclear physics, through whose dank hallways had come and gone a daunting string of physics Nobelists—and down which now resounded the “shattering bang” of Francis Crick’s laugh.
A dozen years older than Watson yet still a graduate student, Crick, who during World War II had a very clever idea that sank more than 100 German minesweepers, had been fiddling desultorily on a Ph.D. dissertation on 3D protein structure that bored him. When he and Watson met, they quickly discovered their mutual passion for DNA—an ardor not shared by the other crystallographers at the Cavendish. The story of how they solved the double helix—their model-building approach, the competition with Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at Kings College London and with Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology—has been told many times, but nowhere more colorfully than in Watson’s 1968 memoir, The Double Helix. He says that he began thinking about writing the story of their discovery almost as soon as they had made it. In August 1962, he had drafted the first chapter, at the Hungarian Nobelist Albert Szent Gyorgi’s house in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Less than three months later, he received the call from Stockholm.
Crick had gotten a call, too, of course, as had Wilkins, their sometime partner, sometime competitor. What was more, two other Cavendish colleagues, the astute Austrian-born chemist Max Perutz, as well as Watson’s official mentor John Kendrew, learned they had won the Chemistry prize. All told, an extraordinary four crystallographers from the Cavendish and one from Kings College London made the trip to Sweden that year. Four years before Rosalind Franklin, whose famous X-ray photograph of DNA was crucial to the discovery, had died tragically of ovarian cancer in 1958 at age thirty-seven. Had she lived, she would have been a contender. But since a Nobel may not be awarded posthumously or to more than three persons, the problem of how to divide the prize was sadly solved. Another death since the discovery had been Watson’s mother, Bonnie Jean, in 1957. In early December, then, Watson, his father, and Betty boarded a Scandinavian Airlines fight for Stockholm.
Nobel week in Stockholm is filled with astonishing pomp and celebration: black-tie parties, gala banquets, and countless trumpets. The laureates are fêted by royalty, celebrated by the entire city, and serenaded by lovely white-robed young women bearing candles. All the Laureates stay at the Grand Hotel Stockholm, whose name if anything is an understatement. Opened in 1874, it squats magnificently by the harbor, crowned with fags, gazing over the water at the Royal Palace. On the second day of the festivities, in one of the Grand Hotel’s three hundred high-ceilinged rooms, sat Watson. The banquet was that evening; the laureates were expected to make a short speech. “I had a couple of hours with nothing else to do,” he said, so he took up a pen and a few sheets of small hotel stationery. With blue ink and the cryptic penmanship that had flummoxed his teachers for years—small but open printing, with fattened vowels like a Midwestern accent—he began to draft his remarks (see lot 2).
“Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies & Gentlemen,” he began. “I am very happy to come to Stockholm with my father and sister to receive this great honor.” He continued by deferring to his fellow laureates: “I started as a student in Biology,” he wrote, “while Wilkins and Crick were originally physicists. All of us however were initially stimulated to search for a molecular basis of genetics by reading the little book ‘What is Life’ by Erwin Schrödinger, a Nobel Laureate best known for his distinguished contribution (Schrodinger’s equation) to theoretical physics.” Wilkins also mentioned What is Life? in his Nobel lecture; other pioneers of molecular biology, too, later claimed it as an inspiration. “Schrödinger’s little book” has become iconic in the history of molecular biology.
Wisely, Watson did not veer into the minutiae of crystallographic theory. He turned instead toward the personal. “I remember very fondly several visits to [the physicist Niels] Bohr some 12 years ago in Copenhagen, with Bohr placing me next to him and speaking very softly of the belief that the way of the physicist would be useful in probing the mysteries of biology.” The reference to Bohr and his famous “Copenhagen school” linked Watson not just to physics but also to a physicist—and it graciously acknowledged the contributions of Scandinavian science. Watson dwelled not on the technical but on the personal.
At first glance, the hand-written draft of the banquet speech seems incomplete; the last page ends mid-sentence (see lot 2). The first four pages contain a complete speech, concluding with a tribute to Bohr’s insight and humanity, “which helped give rise to the spirit of the new biology which you recognize today.” Yet the draft continues for two more pages and then appears to trail off. These give a rare glimpse of Watson’s mind at work, unwatched and unselfconscious. He reworks the passages about Bohr, shifting the emphasis, bringing in new detail, and making adjustments to the prose to make it more entertaining and accessible. The fifth page was to be substituted for the fourth; the last page is a rewrite of page 3. A complete “final” draft, then, can be read by reading pages 1, 2, 6, and 5, and substituting “sitting” for “several” at the bottom of page 2. This apparently is the speech that Watson meant to read at the banquet that night. The banquet hall of Stockholm’s majestic City Hall is a vast, opulent space, with vaulted ceilings ornately filigreed and painted, and giant chandeliers dangling like upended icebergs. Watson took Betty as his “date” that night—a photo shows them entering arm in arm. The laureates and other nobility sat at a long central table, at least fifty seats to a side. Watson found his place card next to that of the princess’s mother and across and down from that of Francis.
Earlier the double helix trio conferred and agreed that Jim would give a speech for all of them. When his time came, he arrived at the podium, looked at his tiny writing on half-size paper. Paused. Blinked in the lights. “I couldn’t read my own writing,” he told me. It would never do to hold the pages near his face and squint. “So I just spoke.” And so—after yet another fanfare and orotund introduction, as he stood, tuxedoed, before kings and queens and hundreds of other eminent guests, speaking with a British accent picked up in Cambridge—Watson winged it.
Traces of the intended text remain in the speech he actually delivered, but as he ad-libbed, Watson took his ideas in new directions. An audio typescript from the banquet allowed us to follow his thoughts from the delivered speech to the official, published one. His original reference to Bohr’s “humanity” blossomed into a discussion on humanity and personal eccentricity. “To stay going” in science, he said, “we have to be rather strange people.” His racing mind seized upon the word “strange.” Many people, he continued, “thought I was quite strange, and I think they’ve also thought Maurice was very strange, and others—including even myself—have thought Francis was strange.” These quirks were not faults, he implied, but part of human nature, essential to science. The important thing, he said, was “that science remains a very humane thing.” He concluded, “If we are humane and warmly work on behalf of other beings, our science will continue and our civilization prevail.” Later, Crick took his place card and wrote on the back, passing a note to his friend like a schoolboy: “Much better than I could have done. –F.”
Dwelling on humanity—not in a grand or political sense of human rights or ending disease, but at the personal level of supporting people with good ideas and “strange” habits—might seem better suited to that year’s laureate in Literature, John Steinbeck, than to one of the science prizewinners. Yet precisely this quality came to characterize Watson’s writing. It was about this time, he told me, “that I became a storyteller.” His Great Books education found a remarkable outlet in writing about science. Watson’s writing already showed the attention to concrete detail, the fair for narrative, and the concern for the human side of science that would make The Double Helix a smash.
The same qualities appear in his formal Nobel Lecture (see lot 3). The hand-written manuscript is close to the published version in its overall structure and in much of its wording. Yet here too, Watson gives us ample opportunity to watch him develop the human element in his story. His Nobel notes provide a unique glimpse into the mind and heart of their author, unquestionably considered one of the towering figures of twentieth-century science, as he develops a signature quality of his intellectual style.
Like many Nobel lectures, Watson’s delves into technical detail, but bear with him. For unlike most scientific writing, Watson’s lecture shows us how science actually proceeds: not in a beeline from discovery to magisterial discovery, but more like a bumblebee bouncing down a window. Scientific articles usually conceal the wrong turns and dead ends, the failed experiments, the bad ideas, sticking with dignity to what is believed to be true. Such details are considered uninteresting at best, and perhaps a little unseemly. But Watson presents them unabashedly, revealing science as a messy, human process. The result is a picture of science that drops the formal mask of the traditional journal article, exposing the very human face underneath—just as he stressed in his banquet speech.
“There remains general ignorance about the way science is ‘done’,” wrote Watson a few years later, in the Preface to The Double Helix. Scientists tend to project a mannered, intellectual idyll, as though science were above the fray of petty competition, jealousy, and ethical tensions. Watson thought it vital for the sake of science to shatter that cool, idealized image. “I do not believe that the way DNA came out constitutes an odd exception to a scientific world complicated by the contradictory pulls of ambition and the sense of fair play.” Indeed, he implied, all science probably has similar stories behind it. DNA just happened to be perhaps the best scientific story of the century.
The importance of DNA today is beyond dispute. It has led to a revolution in medicine; transformed every one of the human sciences; prompted profound ethical, moral, and legal debates; sparked vital new industries; shaped popular culture. No single person has done more to make DNA central in our lives than James Watson. Many-layered, restless, enigmatic, controversial, he is perhaps the least understood of the important Nobel laureates. Sensing the importance of this award even among Nobels, he saved what most might have discarded. These documents, besides being unique mementos of a landmark of modern medicine, provide a rare, intimate glimpse of one of our time’s most original minds at work.
–Nathaniel Comfort, Professor of the History of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University