Maynard Olson on Jim Watson and the HGP
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

But what happened and, of course, Jim Watson’s leadership was absolutely central as this amazing galvanizing force that he brought to this project by going—you know, he was still director here at the labs. And he went and he became a minor government official. I mean Jim Watson as a government bureaucrat is such an incongruous kind of concept. A relatively low level kind of person, appointee, a federal employee at the NIH taking orders from, you know, the director and many other people. He didn’t even have an institute. He had a little thing called a center which is—a very low status sort of unit at the NIH. But here was Jim Watson. And partly he was, you know, probably the most famous living scientist at the time. But he was also Jim. And the force of personality, his optimism, his passion about the genome, his belief in youth. You know the first thing he did is this kind of, which to me cause I was still young then, is that he kind of ignored the more senior people that wanted to build big centers and get big grants. And he actually traveled around the country. I mean he was exhausted. It was very—because he was still running the lab, it was amazing. But he went around the country and rounded up young investigators. You know these people like David Cox and Rick Myers and Bob Waterston and many others. And he was always very supportive of me. I got to know him particularly well because we both served on Bruce Albert’s committee, of the National Research Council which was really the important aftermath of the 1986 Cold Spring Harbor Symposium that, you know, there’ s the famous picture of Botstein and Gilbert arguing about the genome up in Bush, I think. [Note: It was actually in the Grace Auditorium and the Blackford Bar.]

It was clear that by then that the idea had enough focus to it that it needed a careful look by, you know, some strong but not evangelical group that is a balanced group. And so in a brilliant stroke, the National Research Council appointed Bruce Alberts who had very high stature, you know, functionally oriented, mechanistic molecular biologist very widely respected to chair this committee. And I think he had no opinion about whether this was a good idea. And he also had great skills which he has shown to distinction in his later career as NAS president as in getting people together. So this committee anyway, Jim Watson was on it, Dave Botstein. Actually Wally Gilbert was initially appointed to it but shortly resigned. And I was actually appointed to replace Gilbert. So anyway I was on this committee and so my ties to Watson, we developed a very, I think, a shared view of what needed to be done were really built at the very beginning. In fact before the beginning. That is before he was appointed and before the project really took off.

He really kept a fairly high profile in the project. And so I did hear at Cold Spring Harbor, for example, he would always come when we had the genome meetings started about then. I think maybe the first one I would guess was in ’88 or something like that. I organized along with Charlie Cantor, Rich Roberts. I guess it was the three of us the first three or four of those and Jim would always come to those meetings and we had a lot of discussion. And he continued coming later to the meetings and there would often be these strategy meetings under the [Francis] Collins leadership like the day before a Cold Spring Harbor meeting there would be these strategy meetings and Jim would come and he continued to be a strong force.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.

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