Tom Maniatis on Jim Watson: First Impression
  Tom Maniatis     Biography    
Recorded: 22 Mar 2003

Well, first of all, I was tremendously honored. And really nervous when he called because, you know, I knew the legend of Jim Watson. I didn’t know him as a person. And hearing his voice on the other end of the phone from Jim Watson was pretty intimidating.

And you know, my first actual interaction with him was at that reception that I mentioned at Cold Spring Harbor. And in my—I remember that very clearly. And he was nervous, you know. And he was—partly because of the Sambrook thing, but just in general Jim’s kind of—Jim’s basically a pretty shy person.

When I first met him at Cold Spring Harbor, as I described in this essay, he was—I saw this image of him. It was just about dusk and I was walking down Bungtown Road and we were going to the Firehouse. And he was coming from his house down the road and I was coming from Blackford. And I could see this kind of shadowy figure in this kind of clumsily walking along and we met almost exactly at the steps down the stairs. And he almost stumbled into me, you know. We shook hands in this very awkward way and there was this kind of moment of silence and we walked down and got a drink. And then he started talking to me and asking me how the move was, how I was doing, so it was small talk for a while and then he led into this other thing about James. So my first recollection was of a very sort of socially awkward nervous person.

And then over the—I was there for almost two years, I think. And I got to know him better because at that point of my life I was working a lot late at night and Jim would prowl the grounds late at night and look for people to talk to. And so I had numerous conversations with him and he was interested in the science, not just in what I was doing but what else was going on in the field and so on. And he loved to gossip. He knew everything that was going on with everybody both at the lab and outside the lab and so, it was fun. And through that interaction I go to know him better and we felt more comfortable with each other.

But I have to say even now when I first see Jim my blood pressure goes up a bit. I think most people do that. There’s just a certain reaction to him. And there are these uncomfortable silences in the conversation, you know, that you have with Jim because he, you know, he’s thinking or something. But you know, I think I got to know him pretty well and developed enormous respect for him. I mean, he’s—it’s interesting with Jim. There’s this one side that people see who, they see this man who’s very arrogant and dogmatic and a lot of people don’t like him, obviously. But on the other side there’s a person who’s genuinely warm and friendly and cares about science and the people who do science. But, you know, he’s obviously got an extremely complex personality and it’s hard to categorize him in any way.

Tom Maniatis, molecular biologist, is a leader in the field of recombinant DNA. At Vanderbilt University he completed his Ph.D. studying DNA wide-angle scattering. He became a postdoctoral fellow and professor at Harvard University and met Jim Watson just before he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

While Maniatis was beginning experimentation with cDNA cloning and gene regulation of higher cells, the controversy over recombinant DNA in Cambridge stunted his progression. Watson offered Maniatis a position at CSHL where he could work more efficiently to understand the methods of recombinant DNA. At CSHL, Maniatis completed full-length synthesis of double stranded DNA and actual cloning of cDNA.

He is currently a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University studying the mechanisms involved in the regulation of RNA transciption and pre-messenger RNA splicing. He studies transcription to understand how eukaryotic genes are activated by viral infection and extracellular signals.