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James Watson, DNA’s co-discoverer, has the gene of charity

James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA,

James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, has a model of the molecule's double helix in his office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s double helical structure, said he is certain of two things: If he had been born at an earlier point in history, he probably would not have unmasked nature’s long-kept secret. If he had been born much later, the discovery probably would have been made by someone else.

“I came along at the right time,” said Watson, 87, during an interview at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. His office — which has a view of the harbor through a thicket of trees — is a book-filled space adorned with family photos, a 3-D model of the double helix and a diverse collection of art.

While the Nobel Prize winner’s efforts with Francis Crick to decipher DNA’s structure are known to all who enter the field of genetics, few know about Watson’s philanthropy.

He has given away all of the money he received from the auction of his 1962 Nobel Prize gold medal, which was sold for $4.1 million through Christie’s in Manhattan in December 2014. In separate auctions on the same day, he also sold two written documents associated with winning the prize. Watson said he put his possessions on the auction block to raise money for worthy causes and to give something to the educational institutions that helped shape his career.

He attended the University of Chicago, which he entered at the age of 15; studied genetics in graduate school at Indiana University under Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Hermann J. Muller; and collaborated as a postdoctoral researcher with Crick at Cambridge University in Britain, where the pair elucidated the structure of DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid.

The medal’s purchaser, Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, returned the medal last year, but told Watson that he could keep the money. Usmanov said in a statement he was dismayed that Watson had to sell his medal as a way to raise money for charity. Hoping to help the geneticist, Usmanov said he thought Watson should be able to keep the award and be charitable at the same time. The after-tax sum was not revealed but Watson donated nearly $3 million, according to a list submitted to Newsday by Watson’s office. The medal, meanwhile, is now part of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s permanent collections.

From the money, Watson gave the lab $1 million for a variety of projects, including the purchase of art.

And he didn’t forget the Town of Huntington, of which Cold Spring Harbor is a hamlet, where Watson has resided for nearly a half century. He gave $30,000 to the town’s historical society.

Other organizations receiving his charitable donations include those that provide food for the needy. “People have to eat,” Watson said, noting that things were different during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which he observed firsthand as a child. “In the Depression, people starved.”

Outside of his philanthropy, genealogy is a focus that nearly rivals his devotion to genetics. Watson said his family has deep roots in Illinois and some of his ancestors knew President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The Watson family owned a store and sold the Lincolns $46 worth of macaroons. The receipt for that sale has been passed down through his family and published in a book he wrote in 2014 about his father.

Watson describes himself as a political progressive and said his three favorite presidents are the Roosevelts — Theodore and Franklin — and Lincoln.

His admiration of all three likely influenced how he chose recipients for donations from his windfall. Watson gave $50,000 each to the Interfaith Nutrition Network in Hempstead and to Long Island Cares Inc. in Hauppauge. He donated $25,000 to the Community Foundation of Oyster Bay Inc.

Long Island Cares was founded by the late folk singer Harry Chapin, who years ago struck a musical chord in Watson.

“I really admired Harry Chapin,” he said, underscoring that partially because of his love of Chapin’s music he “had been giving $5,000 a year to support Thanksgiving dinner,” sponsored by the food bank.

Chapin, a composer and arranger, was known for his philanthropy on Long Island. He was 38 when killed in an accident on the Long Island Expressway while en route to a free concert at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow.

Paule Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares, said he was stunned when Watson phoned with a gift of $50,000.

“I am still in a state of shock,” Pachter told Newsday not long after receiving the donation.

Msgr. Dennis Regan, meanwhile, a retired priest in Middle Island, was having trouble hearing and was in need of a hearing aid.

When Watson learned of Regan’s plight last year, he decided to use part of the money buy the device for the priest. As an added bonus, Watson and his wife, Elizabeth, took Regan out to lunch in Melville to celebrate.

“Jim is very, very generous,” said Lisa Ott, president of the North Shore Land Alliance and a friend of the Watsons.

She describes James Watson as having wide-ranging interests and being a vigorous supporter of preserving natural landscapes, especially the DeForest Williams estate. The 27-acre parcel overlooks Cold Spring Harbor. He gave the alliance $100,000.

The alliance, along with the Watsons and other like-minded conservationists, fought for years to save the land from development, Ott said.

As of last summer, the acres became a walkable nature preserve for the public to enjoy, and remain a sanctuary for local wildlife. “We’ve dedicated a bench in Jim’s name,” Ott said. “I invite everyone to come visit and to take a little time out and sit on Jim’s bench.”

Beyond local charitable concerns, Watson plans to honor the memory of Crick. Crick was co-discoverer of the DNA’s helical structure. The pair cracked the code of life during an intense series of studies while rival scientists, also in the hunt, were producing vital clues. Watson and Crick declared victory in 1953, describing a molecule shaped like a spiraling staircase.

Other scientists at the time, such as the late Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology, himself a double Nobelist, having won for chemistry and peace, also chased theories, hoping to explain DNA’s structure.

Pauling, who earlier had accurately deduced that a helix is the primary structure of proteins, missed DNA’s configuration by a mile, Watson said.

“He thought it was a triple helix,” noted Watson, still surprised how far off the mark Pauling had been. Still, Watson conceded that he could not have had a better collaborator than Crick.

“I learned more from him than he learned from me,” Watson said of his colleague, who had trained as a physicist. Crick, and his artist wife Odile, frequently invited the young American to dinner.

Odile Crick’s sketch of the double helix — drawn immediately after the two scientists completed a physical model of life’s master molecule — hangs high on a wall in Watson’s office. He plans to donate between $50,000 and $100,000 to the Francis Crick Institute in London for a commissioned portrait of the British scientist, who died in 2004.

“Francis was not a humble person,” Watson said. “People wanted to fire him. Now, everyone realizes he was probably the most important person to work in science in the 20th century.”

Watson said he enjoys being able to help others through philanthropy, something nearly as dear to him as cancer research.

“I don’t want to die until cancer is cured,” said Watson, who plays tennis three days a week, sometimes with partners more than 50 years younger. “I hope to live well into my 90s.”

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