Sydney Brenner on Jim Watson, Discovering the Double Helix
  Sydney Brenner     Biography    
Recorded: 10 Jun 2002

Of course he deserves to be known. Because just think what Jim might have been if he hadn’t been this. He might have been some professor in some university which, you know, in ornithology, you see. So I think—you see it’s very hard. You have to realize that—I like to say; look, you know - science is like chess; in chess there are three games, I did not invent this, this was—[J.D.] Bernal invented this; there’s the opening game, there’s this middle game and there’s the end game, you see. Very few end games are played.

I think the structure of DNA is one of the end games. Of course it just opens up a new game. And it’s given to very few of us. I think that, I think, marks for biology of the nineteenth—of the twentieth century what Darwin is to biology of the eighteenth—of the nineteenth century, you see. So, of course they deserve to be known! Because this is an absolute, complete change in orientation and so on.

You see and it’s very interesting because there is a very famous thing which I actually read—I can show you my copy of it. Actually read it in 1951 when I was still in South Africa. It’s a paper by [John] von Neumann on self-reproducing machines which actually is what—how DNA works. Now intellectually that is fantastic! But they didn’t know about von Neumann. It’s just completely independent thinking. And it’s quite interesting, so of course when one heard of the—how they were proposing reproduction. I mean, I can say immediately, that must be right. It must be right! It was because of all this earlier work that I knew about from von Neumann. And in fact, all the objections made by people, you know, you couldn’t—the unwinding of the strands—we used to say, “Don’t worry if it’s a problem. Nature will have solved it!” you see.

So, indeed—the way—Leslie Orgel used to say, “Well, they’ll be an enzyme that’ll do it.” Of course there were enzymes that did it so he was right!

So I think that, that -____________--and the uniqueness of The Double Helix is that it’s one book, you know. It can only be written once. And it has been written. I think everything else will be—I think that everything else is a bit of a letdown after that! And that’s what I think is the interesting book.

Sydney Brenner is a pioneer in the field of molecular biology. He was born in South Africa in 1927 and received his Ph.D. from Oxford University in 1954. From 1979 to 1986 he served as Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Biology and from 1986 to 1991, as the Director of the Medical Research Council Laboratory Molecular Genetics Unit, both in Cambridge, England.

Since 1996 he has been the President and Director of Science at the Molecular Sciences Institute in La Jolla and Berkeley. Brenner was honored as a Distinguished Research Professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla in 2000.

In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Dr. John Sulston and Dr. Robert Horvitz “for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death’” studying the organism C. elegans.