Recorded: 17 Apr 2000
I think the first time I met Jim Watson was when I came to visit Harvard in spring when I was deciding where to go to graduate school. I was an undergraduate at Caltech, chemistry major, but I was working in Bob Sinsheimer’s lab on a M13 virus right in the beginning after it was discovered. I decided that I didn’t want to go to another institute of technology by then. I wanted to be on the East Coast and I wanted go to some place I had heard of. I decided to go to Harvard. At that time, Watson’s lab was clearly the most exciting place in the world in molecular biology and I decided that’s where I wanted to be. I didn’t spend any time—that was the time before you did rotations through labs, I just went to him and said, “I’d like to work in your lab,” and he said fine.
The first time I saw him, in fact, he had a beard; I have never seen him since with a beard, but he was growing a beard for some purpose.
…I do remember the parties he used to give… He had this very strange old apartment on Appian Way, I think, in Cambridge. It was on the second floor. It was an old building; it must have been hundreds of years old, the floor wasn’t quite level and there was hardly any furniture and the walls were covered in artwork, very strange art work as I recall. He would have a lot of parties because he was nearly forty years old and was still looking for a girlfriend.
He had a terrible sound system so after he and Liz got married, the lab chipped in and bought him a stereo. But the parties were fun. I have to say the parties were a lot of fun.
Well, then I finished up my graduate work in the spring of 1969 and stayed in his lab until August. After the first few months in his lab when I was working on M13, he came up to me and said, “Why don’t you come work on RNA polymerase? It’s an interesting enzyme. It’s made up of subunits, so why don’t you do the subunit structure of RNA polymerase?” When I did, I found that it was made up of two alphas and a beta and a beta prime, and later found out that there was an additional subunit called sigma—and that was really the first transcription factor. We found that in the fall of ’68 and published the paper of ___(?) in January ’69 in Nature. So I continued to work on that while I was waiting for my wife to finish her thesis, we [then] went to Geneva, Switzerland for two years as post docs.
Then I got a job back near Madison, which is where my wife grew up, it was very convenient; all of our belongings were stored with her parents. We had no idea we were going to end up back in Madison, but we did.
Richard Burgess is a geneticist who has been an important figure in cancer, microbial, and molecular research. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University under Jim Watson in 1969 and went on to work with Alfred Tissieres at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
He is currently researching RNA polymerases, monoclonal antibodies (MAbs), molecular genetics, computer-based sequence and structure analysis, and biochemistry at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Reaearch at the University of Wisconsin.