James D. Watson on John Cairns
  James D. Watson     Biography    
Recorded: 25 Jul 2003

Well, you know, he’s just exudes being bright and educated. So in that sense very different from Ray. You know, the mid-westerner and John a product of Oxford _____. I always looked forward to a meal with John. I always ______. And, you know, he kept Cold Spring Harbor alive from—he kept, you know, high standards when he was here. He wasn’t—John is not a, was quite willing to risk himself, but not other people. You know, if he’d get on a ski slope, he’s not like me. He’d go down fast and, you know, that’s life if he is hurt.

But he said he didn’t really like working with animal viruses because he didn’t want the responsibility for maybe someone getting sick. In that sense, you know, it was sort of natural for him to say, well, he’d work with animal virus to do it but he didn’t want to move in that direction. And I think it was partly not willing to, whereas I guess—my feeling was I didn’t know whether tumor viruses were dangerous. But that, you know, it would be good for society if people worked on them and so if it did turn out that we all came down with cancer it was the price you paid for trying to improve human life. You know, other people were taking risks in other ways so that, you know—in the Air Force you take a risk. And you know you say it’s good for your country. Someone has to fly the fast planes. Someone has to sort of take some risk with what you do. Now we have, you know, all these regulations, informed consent and so on to prevent people from taking risks with other people. And we may have gone a little too far in the sense that risk taking is sort of an essential component of being a human.

A member of the Time 100 ‘Century’s Greatest Minds’, Dr. James Watson’s life in science has taken him from the revolutionary discovery of the structure of DNA to the head of the National Institute of Health’s Human Genome Project, and places between.

Dr. Watson was born in 1928 in Chicago, and enrolled at the University of Chicago when he was just 15. His graduate studies in genetics with Salvador Luria took him to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for the first time in 1948. His graduate work would eventually bring him to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where, together with fellow scientists Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick and Dr. Watson would discover how the four-nucleotide bases arrange themselves to create the unique identities of each living organism. Their account of the structure of DNA, published in Nature, would win them the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology. Watson's bestselling account of his time at Cavendish, The Double Helix, was named the No. 7 best work of nonfiction by the Modern Library.

Watson spent two decades at Harvard University, where he penned the revolutionary biology textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene in 1965. Dr. Watson's distinguished academic career led him to the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968, where he has pushed the lab towards important steps in cancer research and the causes of mental disease. From 1988 to 1992, Dr. Watson was appointed to head the National Institute of Health in the Human Genome Project. Dr. Watons's genome was the first to be decoded and was made public as part of the project in 2007. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, he has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. After forty years as a brilliant educator and administrator, Dr. Watson retired as Chancellor of the laboratory in 2007.