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If you like James Watson's story, you might also like:
Elizabeth Blackburn,
Norman Borlaug,
Linda Buck,
Francis Collins,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Susan Hockfield,
Eric Lander,
Robert Langer,
Linus Pauling,
George Rathmann,
John Sulston,
James Thomson,
Bert Vogelstein,
Ian Wilmut,
Edward O. Wilson
and Shinya Yamanaka

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring James Watson in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Frontiers of Medicine

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James Watson
 
James Watson
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James Watson Interview

Discoverer of the DNA Molecule

October 22, 1991
Cold Spring Harbor, New York

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  James Watson

(The Academy of Achievement has interviewed Dr. James D. Watson on two occasions: on October 22, 1991 at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, and again on April 5, 2001 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The second interview begins on Page 7.)

How would you describe the significance of your discovery of the DNA molecule?

James Watson: Francis Crick and I made the discovery of the century, that was pretty clear. We made it, and I guess time has justified people paying all this respect to me in spite of my bad manners. We knew it when we saw it, because you can see human history and human awareness of the world around us.


Suddenly to see the molecule which is responsible for heredity, and which makes possible human existence, was a very big step in man's understanding of himself in the same sense that Darwin knew that the human species wasn't fixed, that we were changing. It was bound to affect your attitude to everything.

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James Watson Interview Photo
The realization that the essence of human beings is carried in a molecule, to really see how it was, to have that first look was, of course, a particularly pleasing thing. I guess now you think about it a little more. I didn't think about it much. It was as if I'd suddenly become very rich. Lots of doors would be open to you, but with it came the responsibility of both living up to the fact that we were going to be famous, and some sense of responsibility. Francis and I had quite different reactions.


We both knew what we'd done, and Francis thought we should talk about it as much as possible, because it was so important. And I thought, God, I had such bad manners to have had this good luck and then lord it over everyone that we had done something important! I think we both misunderstood each other's motivations at the time. Now I understand his, and probably his were the more correct.


When he announced what you had discovered, you said you were a bit queasy.

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: I think one was queasy, as if you had won the jackpot at Las Vegas and you don't believe it. You have to wait for a while and accept the fact that it's not some hallucination.

You mentioned in your book about someone saying, at a local pub, "You discovered the secret to life!" Did that happen?

James Watson: If it didn't, if it wasn't those words, that was sort of the mood. Francis and I were not people to hide what we'd done. As you know, pubs in England have a social role besides getting drunk. So we never went there to get drunk. We always ate lunch in that pub, and sometimes we'd go there for a beer when we quit. That was pretty customary. If you know Francis Crick, he's very exuberant. That's an understatement, I think.

When did you first get interested in science?

James Watson: I became interested in birds at a young age. My father had been an amateur bird watcher most of his life. I think I got my first book on birds when I was about eight years old. I used to go most Sundays with my father to see what birds were around, except in the peak of the summer, or when it was colder, in the winter in Chicago.


I think at sort of a young age I began looking at sort of ornithographical magazines, so I became aware of...of science through people interested in birds, and particularly bird behavior. Because the migration of birds was the thing with which you were dominated. Some birds came through in the spring, and in the fall, and in the winter you saw another collection of ducks. So, how birds could migrate always seemed to be not only mysterious, but almost a miracle as to how they did it. Even today, we don't know for sure.


Was there a time when you wanted to do something else with your life other than science?

James Watson: No. I always thought that I would be in some intellectual activity. In part because our home was dominated by books. My father was in business. He wasn't very successful. I think everyone realized it would have been much better if he'd been a school teacher, instead of trying to work in business, to which he wasn't, I guess, very sympathetic. That was during the Depression, and I think many people were wondering whether capitalism as it was then practiced in the United States had a real future. There were so many people out of work that you wondered whether the system really was fair. So business people were not examples. I would never have thought that I would go into business, because they seemed to be people without any compassion.

What books did you read when you were young that inspired you?

James Watson: When I was young, the chief book I remember was The World Telegraph Almanac of Facts. I just went through and learned facts. Our house was filled with books which we call classics. I read them. All the Russian literature in translation, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and English literature. Nineteenth century literature, some early 20th century. As a boy, when I was going to the University of Chicago, the novels of James Farrell, and John Dos Passos, which tried show what America was like. More or less the way Dickens had tried to convey in England, which often were dominated by economics. Those were the days when you questioned whether capitalism was the moral way to live.

Have things changed in your view?

James Watson Interview Photo
James Watson: Yeah. I don't believe that people are born good. We've seen what happened in Communist societies. I don't think that's the answer. On the other hand, we still need a safety net for the less fortunate. The elderly used to be the great problem in the United States when I was a child. Then came Social Security. Now you feel sorry for people as they grow old, because they're growing old, but not because of their economic impoverishment. Often, you have the feeling they're not as bad off as a family who's trying to make it with two kids, in a place where they need two cars, and the wife has to work. The struggle has moved to a different group of people.

Were you sensitized to these things by the literature that was in your house as a young man.

James Watson: Yes. I read the New Republic as an adolescent, and The Nation, as well as Time and more center type things. My mother was very Democratic, worked for the Kelly-Nash machine. So we knew the Irish-dominated politics in the city of Chicago, in those days. They were Democrats.

Did the lack of success in the economic realm make books more attractive to you?

James Watson: I guess I was dominated by two things. One was the Depression, and second, Hitler and the coming of the war and the need to win the war. Those were the dominant things. We certainly were never very materially conscious, in the sense that my father had a car, but that had been lost during the Depression. We weren't really envious of people who belonged to country club, or so on. You know, they were just Republicans.

The idea of keeping up with the Joneses wasn't important?

James Watson: No, I think the impulse was more to understand why things happened. It was sort of more curiosity about what the world was.

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