The paper begins with a deceptively simple request: "We
wish to suggest a structure for the salt of deoxyribose nucleic acid (D.N.A.).
This structure has novel features which are of considerable biological
And so begins one of the most famous scientific publications of the last
century. Its co-author is sitting behind his recently tidied desk at Cold
Spring Harbor Laboratory, and to his right is the foot-high double helix model
of DNA he brought to the lab for his first public lecture after solving the
long-sought after structure with Francis Crick in 1953. Behind him is a collage
of art and accolades, and to his left, a pinup calendar picturing a young
woman in a red dress.
At 74, James Watson is as brash and blunt, as charming and anachronistic as
he was 50 years ago, when the young ornithologist- turned-virologist from
Chicago with a self-admitted phobia of chemistry and an obsession with DNA went
He steps around his desk, retrieves a copy of the original paper and reads
the last sentence aloud: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific
pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism
for the genetic material."
And then he giggles.
"I wanted to say nothing, and Francis wanted to say more, so it was a
compromise," he says. Of course, he realizes that the structure, with its
paired genetic letters like steps on a spiral staircase, paved the way not only
for learning how the molecule copied itself but also for how it stored
information and transferred it to usable form. And of course he realizes that
the sentence has become a running joke among scientists as the epitome of
understatement, that they have only to recite the first few words to elicit a
Especially when the scientific community is planning a large commemoration
of the discovery's 50th anniversary, and when other researchers such as Richard
Gibbs, head of Baylor College of Medicine's Human Genome Sequencing Center in
Houston, compare the achievement to Einstein's E=mc2 equation. Or to the
Others may beg to differ, but Watson and Crick's achievement, with some
timely assistance from their competitors, is credited with ushering in a new
era of discovery in biology. As the director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
for 26 years and its president for the past nine, Watson also is credited with
transforming the institution into a molecular biology powerhouse and for
guiding the mammoth Human Genome Project through its formative years in the
late 1980s and early 1990s.
Along the way, Watson has encountered more than a little controversy. For
instance, he pays little heed to critics questioning his acceptance of genetic
enhancement ("If you knew how to do it, what woman would let her daughter be
born ugly?") or naysayers doubting the affordability of the accumulating
"The well-to-do, you know, probably had the first television sets," he
says. "But that's not a reason for not building a television set."
And he's frankly mystified why everyone is making such a big deal over
human reproductive cloning. "It's not like a nuclear bomb going off," he says.
In the early 1950s, biologists were concerned with an entirely different
set of questions, mainly whether protein or DNA held the secret to genetic
inheritance. Most researchers had placed their bets on proteins, and the race
to solve DNA's structure had few entrants.
Chemist Linus Pauling, perhaps best known for his discovery that many
proteins are shaped like a corkscrew, had jumped into the DNA contest. But his
model yielded a fundamentally flawed three-chain helix with its backbone in the
"His model was awkward and didn't explain the data," Watson says. At King's
College in London, two other researchers named Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind
Franklin were producing fuzzy pictures of DNA crystals from X-rays - but
otherwise barely tolerating each other, much less collaborating.
And about an hour and a half's train ride north, at the Cavendish
Laboratory of Cambridge University, Watson and Crick were busy trying out
different models of DNA with pieces of steel and brass. Watson says plenty of
evidence already existed that DNA formed a double helix, but researchers,
including him, simply failed to connect the dots.
"So I said to Francis, 'You know, if either of us had been chemists, we
should have built a model of DNA in the fall of 1951 when I arrived in
Cambridge,'" Watson recalls. "There was enough data in the literature actually
to get the answer. But the truth, you know, we weren't chemists, so we made
terrible chemical botches."
Then, in the beginning of February in 1953, Watson saw a piece of Rosalind
Franklin's data that jumped out at him: the best-yet photograph of DNA's
crystalline structure. "The main thing, it was just a perfect photograph from a
helix," he recalls.
Only Franklin never showed it to him. Wilkins did. Without her permission,
The physical constraints revealed by the photograph provided Watson and
Crick with a vital clue to the structure, and Watson hit upon the final
solution on a Saturday morning one month later, one that also suggested a way
for the molecule to copy itself. Watson didn't really relax until a week later,
after he and Crick constructed a 6-foot model with freshly cut metal pieces
and meticulously measured the bond angles to make sure they agreed with the
physical constraints and other experimental observations.
"So, you know, the structure took a, you could say, a physicist and a
bird-watcher 18 months to solve, but if we had been sort of two highly
motivated chemists - you know, six weeks, without the data from King's," he
After Watson and Crick received the blessing from their academic
supervisors, Watson persuaded his sister Elizabeth to type up the 900-word
manuscript, and the researchers hurried it off to the journal Nature. The
article appeared on April 25, 1953, with separate accompanying papers each from
Wilkins and Franklin.
Fifty years later, Watson anticipates the one question that critics always
ask: Why didn't he give Rosalind Franklin more credit for her role in the
"And the answer, though we saw a lot of her - you know, when she was dying
she went and stayed with the Cricks - the only answer I can give - and it
sounds sort of gratuitous, but - was, she sort of flubbed it, and we didn't
want to say, 'Rosalind, why didn't you find the answer?'"
"If you run a race with somebody, and you won, you don't ask them, why did
you lose? You know, it wasn't the same as sort of rubbing salt in the wound?"
At least that's part of the answer. Watson also says Franklin, although
"overequipped intellectually," had the picture for at least nine months and
never did much with it.
"So it wasn't as if, you know, she got a piece of data and we stole it,"
Watson says. "In fact, it was shown to us. And it was shown to us because she
had passed some of her data to Wilkins in preparation of leaving King's."
And besides, he says, the discovery wasn't really accepted by biochemists
until 1958, the year that Franklin died of ovarian cancer.
"You know, now, 50 years later, it's regarded, you know, as being the big
discovery of biology of the century," he says. "But most people didn't think so
when Rosalind was still alive."
Furthermore, he says, neither Wilkins nor Franklin accepted his and Crick's
repeated suggestions that they try model building, nor does he remember
Franklin talking about any of her evidence suggesting a helical structure for
DNA, and nor was he privy to what was discussed at King's College, especially
since Wilkins and Franklin were barely on speaking terms.
"And Rosalind was totally unfriendly to me," he says.
The awkwardness that he and Crick felt, he says, resulted only because they
didn't like beating Wilkins, who was friends with Crick.
"We would have been very happy, you know, for the three of us to have found
it," he says. In the end, the three did receive official credit, sharing the
Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.
Three decades later, controversy encircled Watson once again when he
resigned as head of the Human Genome Project over the National Institutes of
Health's decision to patent human gene fragments sequenced in the lab of an
ambitious researcher named J. Craig Venter. Watson reportedly said the
automated sequencing machines yielding these "expressed sequence tag" fragments
"could be run by monkeys."
Venter left the NIH one year later, embarking on his own privately funded
effort to beat the Human Genome Project at its own game. In 2000, both sides
declared an uneasy truce, momentarily putting aside their bitterness and
jointly announcing their results.
Despite the turbulence, Watson is still gratified to have played a key role
in the genome project, and touts his decision to fund an arm solely devoted to
exploring ethical, legal, and social implications of the effort. And whereas
the entire project was controversial even at its inception, "almost everyone
now wants to know the genome of the organism they're studying," he says.
But the information is far from complete. Watson likes to tell the story of
the time he went to the White House in 2000 for the joint announcement of the
genome's preliminary draft. A reporter told him he wasn't smiling that much.
"And I said, 'I'll only smile when, you know, we cure cancer.'"
Watson is smiling now, not because he believes a cure is imminent, but
because he acknowledges that a separate prediction on the matter proved, well,
controversial. In 1998, The New York Times quoted him on Page 1 as saying a
prominent cancer researcher would cure cancer in the next two years. Watson
says the quote was taken out of context.
Nevertheless, he cites the quickening flow of cancer information as well as
the development of human insulin and interferon therapy as but a few of the
direct benefits to come from the growing body of genetics data. Not to mention
"We're going to live longer and we're going to have better lives because of
all this knowledge. And so, I jokingly say, 'Well, there will be a need for a
lot more plastic surgeons.'"
"I grew up thinking men died in their 60s," he says. "They did, you know,
before antibiotics. And, I suspect, if there wasn't antibiotics I wouldn't be
living now, because I get terrible infections. They would have knocked me off."
If death doesn't scare him, the thought of future children having their DNA
"fingerprints" taken at birth does, and he cites privacy and freedom as two
major concerns. But then again, "there are so many people and it's frankly so
easy to be a terrorist, that people are going to ask more, 'Who can lie?' for
better or worse. And the best way of saying who someone is, is a DNA
In fact, he says the biggest surprise of the past 50 years is the
technology that makes such DNA fingerprinting - at least in criminal cases -
He also professes surprise at the anger of women over the title of his most
recent book, "Genes, Girls, and Gamow," the sequel to his bestselling
autobiographical account of the original discovery, "The Double Helix." He says
Crick didn't care much for the sequel either, but Watson merely shrugs.
"I just felt that since everyone said it was a great discovery ... you
might as well say, 'Well, what was it like afterwards?'"
His answer is that the initial happiness lasted for about four months,
until his scientific curiosity led him to a new obsession, with DNA's chemical
But the original double helix discovery still merits some personal pride.
"People say, 'Well, what was the best period of your life?' and when you're
next to your wife, you have to say, 'Well, when I got married or we had
children,' but it's hard to say, 'Well, that wasn't pretty good,'" he says.
And then he laughs.