James D. Watson on Involvement in the HGP
  James D. Watson     Biography    
Recorded: 25 Jul 2003

There was the Santa Cruz meeting and Rich Roberts was really the one who was—his lab had been with Ulf Pettersson sequencing adenoviruses in the early ‘80s. And Rich had become very interested in the need of computers to store DNA sequences. So he was a real promoter of getting DNA sequence information. There was a meeting held in Santa Fe—Rich and I would have been talking about it. It is too far back.

I wasn’t against it. I think it was—you know, the first genes—Mike Wigler’s work was going very well. We were cloning the human genes. I was sort of neutral. And—I think the in the spring—it was clear that the Department of Energy was thinking that that should be their focus. And I was very worried that they wouldn’t really be the right people to do it. And NIH should come in. So—, it was something that should happen and therefore the good guys should seize it as distinct from, you know—the people who were the leaders in molecular biology should run the program, not people who were sort of on this, you know, fringe players. Probably the reason I was enthusiastic was that I thought the human genome project would eventually lead us to the genes behind mental illness cause that year we were just dominated by this illness. And, you know, the possibility that it was schizophrenic.

And, yeah, I remember driving to Woods Hole and being very unsettled because Rufus had been temporarily in Nassau County Medical Center and the psychiatrist thought he was schizophrenic. You know, just coming out and saying he’s schizophrenic, you know, was a hard thing because it was, you know, there was no decent—there were drugs but they didn’t make you normal. So I think it was a personal need that made me so strong a partisan I would have, with time, I think, just to keep DOE from running would have been pretty strong.

And then there was just the difference in age between Baltimore and Botstein, the younger people who weren’t thinking of terms really of disease in their lives. But when you get disease in your life then you think, yes, you want to understand it.

So that was 86—most of the deliberations of the committee were between December and April. And then because of a friendship with Brady Metheny who was ____Hoagland had found to sort of run a delegation for basic biomedical research. I had testified a couple of times in sort of groups in front of Congress. I must have talked to Brady about—because DOE had begun to lobby for some money that I wanted to go. So David Baltimore went—it was just when the HIV crisis was coming in. Baltimore went to argue for a large appropriation for HIV and we were together and I was arguing for getting the human genome project started. So David who was always, I think, somewhat ambivalent. He couldn’t—he wasn’t emotionally for it but he, you know, couldn’t come out when we were together in front of Congress and say it’s a lousy idea. He didn’t because, you know, it wasn’t a lousy idea. It was really a function of whether the exact time had come to start it. That was a real argument, you know. Should your technology be better before you start, and I think it probably wouldn’t have started so fast if DOE hadn’t decided to get into it. And that, of course, wouldn’t have happened if John Sulston and Alan Coulson hadn’t done the contigs of the worm. Which had led to sort of a copycat of a—trying to do cosmids with humans and that was proving that it just didn’t work. And so the decisive intellectual thing which said we should we go ahead was, you know, Maynard Olson with his student David Burke having come up with yeast artificial chromosomes. It was the YACs and Maynard drawing the committee, I think. It was Maynard more or less saying it could be done. That was it.

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.