James Watson, Nobel Prize winner: Welcome to the Watson Wonderland

DNA genius still ruffles feathers 50 years after extraordinary discovery

Nobody could accuse James Dewey Watson of being a bore. The man who co-discovered the DNA double helix is an effusive purveyor of outrageous views, politically incorrect comments and scurrilous gossip.

At 75, Watson has lost little of the naughty boy reputation he gained 50 years ago when he and Francis Crick made the scientific discovery of the century.

It is difficult to overstate the size of Watson and Crick's achievement. With a blindingly brilliant insight, they had suddenly defrocked the mysterious unit of inheritance – the gene. Out of that one staggering breakthrough a whole new era of understanding emerged, not just in molecular biology and medicine but in the wider field of human nature, psychology and anthropological origins. If this was not enough, the double helix itself became an icon of the late 20th century. It was, quite simply, the Mona Lisa of science.

Watson was only 25 when he and Crick, then 37, published a short description of the double helix in the journal Nature on 25 April 1953. In showing that the molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) consisted of two intertwining strands wrapped in a paired helix around a central axis, they had explained one of the most important mysteries of life.

As they famously wrote almost as an afterthought at the end of their article: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."

It was a landmark discovery not least because it made an important prediction. If one strand of the double helix was chemically the mirror image of the other then each helix could, when unravelled, form the template for two further strands to form two further helices.

Watson and Crick had explained the fundamental basis of inheritance and other scientists used their double-helix model to explain how genetic information was passed from one cell to another and from one generation to the next.

This led to an understanding of how genes work, why they can go wrong and how these genetic defects might be corrected. It spawned a new era in modern medicine with insights into inherited diseases such as sickle cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis and it opened the way to finding better treatments and cures for disorders with a strong genetic component, from cancer to Alzheimer's disease. It was, in the words of the late Sir Peter Medawar, one of Britain's most eminent thinkers, quite simply "the greatest achievement of science in the 20th century".

Today, Watson is the president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York. His imposing office overlooks the pretty woodland slopes that run down to the yachting playground of the East Coast rich. It is the sort of view that the Great Gatsby would have enjoyed while hosting a champagne-fuelled party.

A large pencil sketch of the double helix hangs over his desk, and an Anna Kournikova calendar on the adjacent wall testifies to his two other life-long obsessions – tennis and pretty women.

Watson has made no secret of his fascination for "girls". When not chasing the double helix, he was eagerly engaged in life's other great chase. The Double Helix, his bestselling book describing the events leading up to the discovery, makes ample references to his pursuits of the au pairs of Cambridge, and his later autobiography, Genes, Girls and Gamow, further elaborates his sexual quests.

The Double Helix was what made Watson infamous. He narrates with an almost Pepys-like honesty the human side to the scientific discovery.

The reader is left in no doubt that this was a race and he was determined to win. Medawar described the characters portrayed by Watson as larger than life, "like creatures of a Wonderland, all at a strange, contentious, noisy tea party which make room for him [Watson] because for people like him, at this particular kind of party, there is always room".

The BBC's award-winning docudrama of the double helix story cast Jeff Goldblum as a young, lanky Watson complete with rolling eyes and a nervous urgency. Looking back, Watson says that Goldblum's portrayal of him as obsessive was right, up to a point.

"Before we found the double helix, it was true that I was the obsessive one but, the moment we saw the double helix, Francis became obsessive. He saw that this was going to change the world," says Watson.

In The Double Helix, Watson describes the other characters in his Wonderland with merciless candour. Even his famous opening sentence is a minor character assassination of his close friend: "I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood," he writes.

On seeing the manuscript Crick did try to stop Harvard University Press from publishing, but Watson insists that this was purely because Crick thought the book was too lightweight for such an academic outlet. (Harvard took the advice and declined, robbing the publisher of a valuable income.)

"Frankly, everyone who read the book said that I portrayed Francis in a very flattering way," Watson says. "Francis had been rejected a number of times by people, you know, and I think it hurt him so he probably didn't want to ..." says Watson without finishing his sentence. "He was the most remarkable person. He was a little too bright for most people."

Much has been made of Watson's cruel descriptions of Rosalind Franklin, the "dark lady" of DNA who worked with Maurice Wilkins in his lab at King's College London.

"Rosy", as Watson then described her, was a brilliant crystallographer who had produced beautiful X-ray images of the DNA molecule, which Wilkins had shown to Watson without her knowledge.

Franklin had clashed with Wilkins many times, a bitter personal dispute that affected their professional partnership. While the King's team languished, Watson and Crick pressed ahead with their own model building of the DNA molecule.

"There was antipathy between her and Wilkins and we were friends of Wilkins." Another pause. "Maurice took her a box of chocolates one day. You just didn't know what would have softened her up," recalls Watson. "I've read Rosalind's letters, they are letters I could have written. She had a rather unsentimental view of the world. She thought most people were rather vulgar. She thought Maurice was so middle class. She was a snob."

Franklin, who died from ovarian cancer in 1958, four years before Watson, Crick and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel prize, became a feminist icon in the 1970s when an American author wrote a polemical retort to Watson's The Double Helix. Many feminists vilified Watson for being so scornful towards Franklin.

By writing such things as "the best home for a feminist is in another person's lab", Watson had unwittingly turned Franklin into the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, an epitaph that does not fit with reality, according to Brenda Maddox, Franklin's most recent biographer. Much of what has been said and written about Franklin's antipathy towards Watson and Crick is a myth, says Maddox. "There is no evidence that Franklin felt bitter about their achievement or had any sense of having been outrun in a race that nobody but Watson and Crick knew was a race," she says. In fact towards the end of her life Franklin became good friends of the DNA duo, especially Crick, whom she genuinely liked.

But what is extraordinary, perhaps, is that Watson and Crick had never told Franklin to her face what they later said from public platforms after her death – that they could never have achieved their discovery without her work.

Flushed with success and at the tender age of 28, Watson was given a professorship at Harvard University, where he ruffled the feathers of the traditional biologists, the "stamp collectors" who were not aboard the modern ship of molecular biology.

One such traditionalist was the evolutionary biologist Edward O Wilson, who came to regard Watson as an arch enemy. "When he was a young man, in the 1950s and 1960s, I found [Watson] the most unpleasant human being I had ever met," Wilson writes in his biography.

Watson radiated contempt in all directions and shunned ordinary courtesy. He became the "Caligula of biology" and was given licence to say anything that came to mind because of the greatness of his discovery, says Wilson.

"Few dared call him openly to account ... for the compelling reason that the deciphering of the DNA molecule with Francis Crick towered over all that the rest of us had achieved and could ever hope to achieve."

In 1968 Watson became director of Cold Spring Harbor and, to the surprise of some, including Wilson, built it up from an average institute into a world-class centre of excellence. "I commented sourly to friends that I wouldn't put him in charge of a lemonade stand," Wilson says. "He proved me wrong."

Even in his mid-70s, Watson continues to ruffle feathers and delights in saying outrageous things. I ask him about germ- line gene therapy, the genetic engineering of sperm and eggs to order to alter the genes of future generations, which I know he favours.

"I always draw a laugh when I say that everyone knows the Irish need improvement," he says, straining to see if someone with an Irish name shares the joke.

In Britain and elsewhere germ-line gene therapy and "designer babies" are a taboo subject, much to Watson's annoyance. "Throughout civilisation people have tried to make things better and we're suddenly saying this is a way we won't try and make things better, and that seems almost against human nature," he says.

An unholy alliance of left-wing ideologues and religious fundamentalists was blocking any serious discussion of how modern genetics might be used to improve humans rather than just eliminate disease.

Watson sees no problem with the idea of changing children's DNA to make them resistant to HIV or even to improve their intellectual performance by boosting the memory circuits of the brain – if ever this becomes possible.

"You know, the only people who say that stupid people don't exist are people who are not stupid. We know that if we go to homeless people there is an underclass with a very strong mental disease component. Those people can't pull themselves together, the brain just won't allow it. So it is not that they are weak in character, they are seriously unequal," Watson says.

"People in first-class universities may have brains that work more efficiently than people who aren't there and if you could help someone, wouldn't that be nice?"

Watson hates both social and scientific taboos. "It's almost impossible to study the genetics of intelligence either in the US or the UK because it is socially contentious. You can say that the net effect is that it helps to perpetuate a system where people are dumb."

Part of the problem was that, before the double helix, genetics was inextricably linked with the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

"Should Hitler harm us for the next 200 years by saying that we cannot do genetics? People say to me that 'you are acting like Hitler'. People have accused me of being a Nazi just because I won't accept raw evolution, because I wanted to filter it a little and try to improve the quality of human life," he says. "We can say that we want to improve human beings genetically but we don't want to do it by the ways that were attempted in the past."

With the 50th anniversary celebrations of the double helix in April, scientists are also planning to publish the final and complete version of the human genome. It is a fitting tribute to five decades of discovery and one that Watson will savour. "The book of the DNA sequence would in time be regarded as more relevant to human life than the Bible.

"It tells us who we are," he says, adding without a hint of irony: "I've never read the Bible, so I'm not sure I've missed much."

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