Recorded: 25 Jul 2003
The argument which we had on the committee is who should direct it. Partly it was because I knew that the sort of level of people who were administrating it at NIH has just sort of cannot be run by an NIH administrator and therefore it should be run by the scientific community. So it was more a matter of principle and when we had the Reston meeting I was very firm. Because the person who had arrived was Ruth Kurstine. And I just thought she’s hopeless. And so on several occasions I basically had to tell Ruth, you’re hopeless. Not _____, but you know, it was an argument you couldn’t lose. That is—and the analogy was made with the big Department of Energy administrators did not run the big nuclear accelerators. They were run by the physicists and so it was the same thing. That you should—if you had a big project a scientist had to be in charge not an administrator. And then during the meeting, Tom Caskey could tell you more because he—there was a meeting which I wasn’t part of when my name surfaced as possibly being someone who could run it because after the meeting—a very key thing was that we got the congressional appropriation. NIH didn’t ask for it. It’s interesting, whereas the NIH cannot go and ask for something. The President asks in his budget. And so the NIHbudget has often been disease groups going and saying we need money for cancer, etc. And so it was the knowledge that this is the way that something. And in fact NIH except for Jim Wyngaarden—they did not want to get involved with this. So I went—so Congress was the one who said NIH should start a human genome project. That’s really what it was. And then being told he had the money then Jim Wyngaarden then held a meeting and it at Reston, Virginia, that’s just outside of—near Dulles Airport. And he wisely chose David Baltimore to be chairman of that meeting which was good because he wasn’t a proponent of the project. It was more of, you know, how should it really be done. How should NIH spend its money? And, of course, we had the National Academy Report to do it. So it was really the administration. And so sometime in April, Jim Wyngaarden called me up and said would I consider being it. And I went down and then—by then Rufus was in a hospital, a psychiatric hospital called Chestnut Lodge. Just a little beyond Bethesda out of Washington.
So even if, you know, our plans were so unsettled. I couldn’t have left Cold Spring Harbor even if I wanted. It was just—so I said if I could have—keep the Cold Spring Harbor job. Then it was easy to start because I was appointed an associate director for genomes but I had no money to spend. So there was no conflict of interest. When Jim said he wanted to set up a center, the national center for human genome research then there was a potential conflict of interest and people didn’t look too carefully because there was really no one else who wanted the job. And it wasn’t until Bernadine Healy came in and the whole question of the patenting. And I was pretty strong on that. Then I was weak politically because it turned out that my position was illegal so they could not only fire me but charge me with, you know, all sorts of offenses. It was particular when they said that I should never have been conducting any business using my phone because Cold Spring Harbor Lab shouldn’t be subsidizing the project. So.
But there wasn’t the—and one reason I think I had a feeling—it was a pretty grim time with, you know, worrying about Rufus. That was all during that time. So I had said four years was, you know, I wanted out. I didn’t know who could succeed me because there were sort of—people were, you know, like involved in the human gene mapping but they weren’t really the hard core molecular biologists. You know, Paul Berg could have run the project, but that would have been the sort of level—I don’t know why he was—Paul was pretty close to a couple of companies at that time. Much more than I was, I think. I didn’t have any involvement for the biotech. Any active way___.
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.