James D. Watson on The 1986 Symposium: The Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens
  James D. Watson     Biography    
Recorded: 25 Jul 2003

Well that started that—I think Dulbecco, we’d already decided what the topic of the ’86 symposium was when Dulbecco came, yes. Which was—so it was the molecular biology of humans [The Molecular Biology of Homo Sapiens] and that was really in response to the making of the first human genetic maps that you could map disease genes. So that meeting was—at Paul Berg’s suggestion we had a separate discussion on whether we should sequence the human genome. I wasn’t responsible. He and Wally Gilbert were the sort of organizers of that. Paul had got when Sanger and Gilbert got the Nobel Prize Paul was part of that group.

I think there was all this excitement about doing human genetics. And that human genetics was possible and that human genome would speed up human genetics. That was sort of obvious. How to get it accomplished soon after the Cold Spring Harbor meeting, there was the Howard Hughes Medical Institute had a meeting. They were supporting sort of human genetics. George Cahill who was the scientific director was supporting human gene mapping and—but at this stage there was a new director of Howard Hughes, Don Fredrickson. I was hoping when we went to the meeting that Hughes would become an active participant, but he essentially made the decision they were not going to support the human genome project. Then luckily there was a National Academy [of Science] meeting in August because the Life Science Commission of the National Academy was aware of these discussions and wanted itself to know what was going to happen and so I was invited to Woods Hole.

I went up to that meeting. And the president of the National Academy was Frank Press, the geophysicist. And what was clear is that, you know, the discussions at Cold Spring Harbor should be followed up by more measured deliberations really asking was this the time to start. And so I must have talked with Frank about whether there could be a National Academy committee appointed. And there was—I never felt, you know, that special pleading. It was sort of obvious. Why shouldn’t the National Academy consider it?

And then there was the question of who would pay for a report which every report has to be paid for. And there luckily the McDonnell Foundation in—somehow, I forget how it happened, the Banbury Center got money from the McDonnell Foundation. And Michael Witunski, whose background I now forget. But he was president of the foundation and I invited him to come to the symposium and he really enjoyed the symposium. And sort of indicated that— McDonnell Foundation would like to help get it started. So they provided the money for the National Academy report. And the sort of staff person for that report was—I forget his background was John Berse he was—maybe bacteria physiologist. No, his father was a bacterial physiologist in Wisconsin. And for a while he was head of Woods Hole later on. And I think he’s returned to Wisconsin as President of Belate College.

But then I suggested to Frank Press that Bruce Alberts might be a good chairman because it was essential that the chairman be someone who is respected by the community and not be a proponent of the idea. Someone who would want to spend the money. And Bruce had written the article on the prudent cell. Basically against big science. So the best scientific labs are of about five to ten people, not massive labs. Whereas the human genome project was obviously going to be highly focused and they would require big labs.

So I just thought—and Bruce by that time we had the first edition out of The Molecular Biology of the Cell and Bruce was—and, yeah, I had a lot of contact with Bruce and a great respect for him So I thought he would be, you know, the right sort of person to do it. And I forget how that committee was—the composition, Bruce might know, you know. Who suggested Shirley Tilghman or something. She was the only woman who was a member of the committee. Some were sort of obvious. Sydney Brenner was on it and Lee Hood and Wally Gilbert, Botstein—the people who—Frank Ruddle from Yale who was interested in gene mapping. So the Cold Spring Harbor meeting was important because it was the first time that there was this sort of idea was debated by a broader community. The Santa Fe meeting was more or less a meeting of people who wanted to do it. And this was the time when there was sort of a genuine debate. And just having Witunsky there who paid for it—you know, there are a lot of small things that happened.

I wasn’t—that symposium was run—I didn’t pay much attention to it because Rufus had been in the hospital and had run away and was missing for a couple of days during that meeting. Then he reappeared and so the summer was sort of dominated by my worrying about his illness.

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.