Robert Waterston on The Burke Incident
  Robert Waterston     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

I know. I want to know what were—I understand I’m just—so… This was 1992. And we were convinced that the worm could be sequenced. You know, we proposed to Jim [Watson] at the start that he give us one hundred million dollars and we’d do the worm in ten years. And he said, “No, no. It doesn’t work that way. You have to actually do a pilot project and show that it works.”

And so we did. We set up our three-year pilot project. And by the middle of the second year we knew that we could make it go. That we weren’t just blowing hot air. And that it would—given the money that we could continue to—we were confident that we could continue to make the incremental improvements. I mean that was key. We couldn’t keep doing what we were doing. We had to continue to make incremental improvements. But we knew we could do it.

And what wasn’t clear at the time was that we were actually going to be given the resources to do it. That there was this resistance. That it was still too expensive. That even though the deal had been we needed to get to a dollar a base and we could see that we were going to be at a dollar a base, but that wasn’t good enough more because they wanted to spend their money other ways. And it was especially true, I think, for the MRC, which is more strapped for money anyway. And so we couldn’t—we just weren’t confident that we were going to be able to get the money to do this next phase. And so we got approached by—I think it was actually [David] Burke who actually Wash. U. for a day. And he talked to Maynard and he talked to me. And he was talking about forming a company to do things. And I can’t remember actually how [or] where the invitation came from. I think it might have come from Lee or it came from—oh, god!—what’s the biochemistry guy at Columbia? Retired guy? I’d have to look at my notes. I can’t remember his name.

Anyway, so they said would you be interested in thinking about doing a company with us because they thought that they were going to meetings and could see that we were producing sequence at a high rate. High for the day, for the time. And they wanted to do the human genome. And so that was good because we were not uninterested in the human genome, but we told them that—as the deal worked out we told them that we would come in to their company and work on it as long as they would provide the money to do the worm and we could do whatever else we wanted to—I mean we’d help run the human, but they had to provide us the money to do the worm. That’s what we wanted out of it.

And, I mean it went—I mean this is a crazy deal. I don’t know why any company would be—would even think about it. But it actually went quite far. We went, you know, we visited Seattle a couple of times and had a meeting in JFK Airport another time. Izi Adelman, that name—man at Columbia that I was trying to think of. Lee was there. Charlie Cantor was there at another meeting. And they listened for a long time before Burke finally decided to pull out. And Jim was heavily involved in this. When Jim got word of this he got very upset that the ____was going to go into the private sector. I got phone calls from him about what a scallywag Burke was and he couldn’t even play squash well. And all kinds of—you know, Jim was Jim!

And so, anyway, the upshot of all of this was that Jim got the Wellcome Trust to put up money to found the Wellcome Trust Sanger Center. And so money was—the irony of all this is that the Wellcome Trust in the end refused to spend any money on the worm at all. And the money had to all—John had to scrape and borrow to get all the money from the MRC.

Well, to finish up on the Burke story. I mean Jim was just angry at Burke. And what the conversation—the conversation would start out with something about whether this was going to be good for science and whether we could really do it. And then it ended up with, inevitably with long harangues and personal attacks and we got some of them from the other side too.

Robert Waterston received his bachelor's degree in engineering from Princeton University (1965) and both an M.D. and a Ph.D. in pathology from the University of Chicago (1972). After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, he joined the Washington University faculty in 1976 where he is the James S. McDonnel Professor of Genetics, head of the Department of Genetics, and director of the School of Medicine’s Genome Sequencing Center, which he founded in 1993. In early 2003 Dr Waterston took on the role of Chair of the department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was a recipient of the International Gairdner Award, the Genetics Society of America’s Beadle Award, the Dan David Prize, and the Alfred P. Sloan Award from the GM Cancer Research Foundation.

Waterston attended the worm meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Lab and in 1989 Watson supported Waterston’s proposal to use the worm as a model organism in the Human Genome Project.