James Watson: Genetic disorder

Paul Vallely
Saturday 20 October 2007 00:00 BST

James Watson is a man who, by his own admission, enjoys controversy. But even by the great scientist's standards this is one humdinger, and it's not over yet. The man who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA, the code to all life, yesterday cut short his week-long publicity tour of Britain after venues told him he was not welcome. But that was not all. His remarks, reported in a newspaper interview, that blacks are less intelligent than whites, had rippled back across the Atlantic. In New York his own laboratory, one of America's leading scientific research institutions – which he has headed for 40 years – announced that it was suspending him as its figurehead because of the row. The title of his book was Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. By the end of the week boring must have looked rather attractive.

All his career James Watson has relished a good row, going out of his way, it seems, to court controversy. Even the triumph of decoding DNA was tinged with it. The discovery that the DNA molecule is shaped like a gently twisted ladder, a double helix that can unzip to make copies of itself to transmit life's hereditary information, owed a lot to the work of another scientist, Rosalind Franklin.

Watson and his co-discoverer Francis Crick failed to mention Franklin in their Nobel Prize acceptance speeches. But then it emerged that they had been given some of Franklin's findings without her permission or knowledge. One of Franklin's colleagues had shown Watson an extraordinary X-ray photograph she had taken which clearly showed the helical structure of DNA. "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race," Watson admitted much later.

But at the time Franklin went unacknowledged. Worse still, in his book The Double Helix, a gossipy account of the cracking of the code, Watson made derogatory remarks about her physical appearance, and painted her as a frigid, badly dressed and charmless bluestocking. She died four years before the Nobel Prize was awarded – from ovarian cancer at the age of just 37, possibly brought on by the constant radiation from her photography work.

Even now Watson talks of her with a brutal frankness. "She was just awkward," he said. "I think she was partially autistic." Clever people, he aid, especially those with high mathematical abilities, often have autistic traits. It is characteristic of Watson that he applies this same plain-speaking to himself. "I never had an exceptional mind – I certainly wasn't in the same league as Francis [Crick]. I think I've succeeded more by learning what needed to be done next, and getting help in getting it done. I was just very focused and impatient."

He was, it must be said, clever enough. Born in Chicago in 1928 he went to university there at the age of 15. He graduated in zoology by 19 in 1947 and had his doctorate by the age of 22. But that focused impatience was already clear. He switched track from ornithology to genetics and began studying bacterial viruses. But then he switched course again, after a chance meeting with a molecular biologist named Maurice Wilkins who was working with Rosalind Franklin on X-ray diffraction data for DNA.

In 1951 Watson moved to the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and found he was to share an office with Francis Crick. By another piece of serendipity the two found they had similar scientific interests and began to think about the structure of DNA. "I never met two men who knew so little and aspired to so much," one DNA researcher said of the pair's early interest in the subject. But their late start made them willing to take bold leaps.

Watson's special scientific gift, it emerged, was "to know precisely when to turn from the big picture to the smallest details, and vice versa, making unusual connections that illuminated clues overlooked and discarded by others". His style, says his biographer Victor McElheny, was "that of a commando operation: small, aggressive, narrowly focused, quick and opportunistic".

The Double Helix changed the way the public viewed scientists, but it was a series of textbooks that made Watson his fortune. The Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965), Molecular Biology of the Cell (1983) and Recombinant DNA (1984) earned him enough to build an art collection, including works by Paul Klee and André Derain. For 15 years he was professor of microbiology at Harvard but quit in 1976 to concentrate on research and the molecular biology laboratory Cold Spring Harbor, of which he had become director in 1967 at the age of 39. Over the years he turned into one of the world's foremost genetic research institutes – with him at the head until he was suspended by the board of trustees yesterday.

In 1988 he also took on the task of heading up the Human Genome Project, the hugely ambitious $3bn scheme to map 100,000 genes. But he quit in 1992 after another row, this time with his main funder, the National Institutes of Health, whose Thatcherite director, Bernadine Healy, decided to apply for patents on 347 genes known to relate to the brain even before their specific role was identified. Watson, announcing it was "lunacy" to applying for ownership of the "laws of nature", resigned.

But Watson's maverick nature was also gaining him notoriety. In 1990 the journal Science noted: "To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script."

The wider world began to find out why. In 1997 he suggested in a newspaper interview that a woman should have the right to abort a foetus if it was found to be carrying a "gay" gene. His attempts to justify his stance only made matters worse. He had been speaking in favour of choice for women, he said, but added "because most women want to have grandchildren ... it's common sense". It was a Freudian slip similar to the one he made this week with his anecdotal remark about "people who have to deal with black employees".

Then in 2000 in a lecture at Berkeley University, after showing images of women in bikinis and veiled Muslim women, he suggested that there is a link between exposure to sunlight and libido. "That's why you have Latin lovers," he said. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient." He then went on to show a photograph of Kate Moss and assert that thin people are unhappy and therefore ambitious. "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them," he added. Fat people may also be more sexual, he suggested, because their bloodstreams contain higher levels of leptin.

Watson likes to regard himself as a free-thinker: "Why don't people with Down's syndrome get cancer? Why don't we analyse the genomes of 1,000 heavy smokers who have lived to the age of 80 in search of a gene that would allow people to smoke ... If I believe something then I'll say it. I figure, generally, at least half the time I am reflecting common sense."

Others see things differently. In 2001, he wrote an article for a German newspaper advocating diagnostic tests early in pregnancy for untreatable diseases such as Tay-Sachs, which involves great suffering and early death in childhood. Such cases should be aborted. The problem is that Tay-Sachs is restricted to Ashkenazi Jews. Choosing Germany as the place to float the idea of promoting abortion for Jews suggests that Watson himself may be missing the gene that governs political sensitivity.

He has talked about a gene for stupidity and suggested that stupid people should be aborted. "If your heart doesn't work well, people say it's genetic. If your brain doesn't work well, that, in a sense, is a brain disease," he said. Again, when in a hole he never knows that he should stop digging. He was, he said, only talking about the bottom 10 per cent of the population "who really have difficulty, even in elementary school".

And he has publicly revealed that he wishes a genetic test had been available which would have shown that his son Rufus would turn out to have schizophrenia. "I think I would be a monster to want someone to suffer the way he has... so, yes, I would have aborted him," he once said. Genetic screening, he says, would also inspire greater compassion for the underdog. He fails to see that it might also lead to a world where "underdogs" are discriminated against by insurance companies or to a rise in eugenic abortions.

His is, in any case, a weird world. It may turn out to be bad genes that predispose people to habitually lie, steal or kill, he believes. "I'm strongly opposed to sequencing people at birth and predicting their future," he said last week promoting his book at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. "But if there's a violent criminal, and I'm wondering whether to release him, in the future we would certainly look at his or her DNA."

Watson's suggestions that some races are less intelligent than others sit neatly against this long history of contrived controversy. "Our brains aren't equal," he said in Seattle. "Biology seldom treats people as equal."

There is about it all a detached determinism which takes no account of environment, culture, education and all the other myriad factors which impact upon human behaviour. Nature seems to have ousted nurture entirely in James Watson's mind. It may finally have taken him into one controversy too many.

A Life in Brief

Born James Dewey Watson, 6 April 1928, Chicago, Illinois,

Education Appeared on a children's radio quiz at 12. Then enrolled at the University of Chicago at 15.

Career Graduated from Chicago aged 19, earning a degree in zoology. Moved to Indiana University to study his PhD. Completed his PhD in 1950 and studied at Clare College, Cambridge, where he helped to discover the DNA double helix. Awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1962, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. In 1968, published The Double Helix, a controversial account of the discovery of DNA. Headed the Human Genome Project 1988-1992.

He says "The overwhelming desire of society today is to assume that equal powers of reason are a universal heritage of humanity. It may well be. But simply wanting this to be the case is not enough."

They Say "We have enough problems in the US without Nobel Laureate American scientists pontificating in error about fields of science outside their own expertise" – Dan Agin, editor of Science Week

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