James Watson -- co-discoverer of the DNA double helix and a cancer researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory -- leaves for Russia on Saturday to retrieve the gold Nobel Prize medal he auctioned off in December for more than $4 million.
Watson, 87, will travel to St. Petersburg, where he is expected to meet Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who bought the medal, face-to-face for the first time.
"We are very much alike," Watson said on Wednesday, citing curiosity and a voracious habit of reading as attributes the two share. "You have to have curiosity to know how the world operates."
Usmanov, 61, a self-made billionaire, is widely considered the richest man in Russia. The entrepreneur made a fortune in steel, mining, telecommunications and investments, according to Forbes magazine, which estimates Usmanov's wealth at $14.1 billion.
The billionaire didn't want Watson to return the money, a gesture that has allowed the scientist unfettered freedom to donate the windfall as he sees fit.
Among the recipients are Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; a diverse number of Long Island charities; several colleges in Ireland because of his Irish heritage; and the three universities Watson attended in his youth: the University of Chicago, Indiana University and Cambridge University in Britain.
Indiana University has endowed the Herman J. Muller graduate fellowship for minorities and women, Watson said.
Muller, who died in 1967, was a Nobel Prize winner and inspirational professor whom Watson studied under in graduate school. He described Muller as the country's leading geneticist in the first half of the 20th century and himself as the leading geneticist of the second half.
"They are all nonprofits and the three institutions that improved my life," he said Wednesday during a wide-ranging interview that covered virtually every phase of his 87 years: the hardscrabble period of the Great Depression when it was tough for his dad to afford a car; the tense years in the 1950s in Britain as he and other scientists raced to elucidate the chemical basis of life; and his successful effort to transform Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory from an institution on the brink of financial ruin in the 1960s to the world-class research engine it is today.
Watson continues to write scientific papers and is a cancer researcher at the laboratory.
He marveled Wednesday about his own good fortune. Recipients of his largesse marveled as well, citing their sudden stroke of good luck.
Paule Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares, the Hauppauge-based food bank founded by the late folk singer Harry Chapin, said he was stunned -- Watson gave the nonprofit $50,000.
"Absolutely unexpected," Pachter said Wednesday. "Dr. Watson called me one afternoon; I will never forget that phone call. It was during the winter, a very gray day. But it got a lot brighter after that phone call."
"He asked if I was familiar with him. I said, yes, of course. He said: 'You're aware that I sold my Nobel medal and that I am going to donate money to charities.' Then he said: 'I would like to donate money to your organization.'
"I couldn't believe it. I thanked him profusely, hung up the phone and took the rest of the day off."
Conserving Long Island's natural landscapes has been a longtime interest of Watson and his wife, Elizabeth. The two of them, he said, have fought to stave off development to save the habitats of native plants and birds.
He gave the North Shore Land Alliance $100,000, a gift the organization's president, Lisa Ott, called magnanimous.
"Jim loves land, open space; he loves nature," said Ott, who has known both Watsons for years. Despite that familiarity she did not expect her organization to benefit from the medal's sale.
"When we got the news that we were receiving part of the money ... we were thrilled, touched, amazed. I can't think of any more superlatives," Ott said. "We couldn't have been more grateful."
The Nobel medal, along with other Watson memorabilia related to the discovery of the double helix, were auctioned through Christie's in Manhattan. Watson said Wednesday the medal will be archived at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
Watson's medal was awarded in 1962 for the 1953 discovery revealing life's master molecule to be a spiraling structure. He shared the prize with the late British molecular biologist Francis Crick and the late physicist Maurice Wilkins of Kings College in London.