Recorded: 27 Feb 2003
In October 18, 1962 that morning it was announced that Jim Watson and Crick and Wilkinson [correction: Wilkins] had won the Nobel Prize. And, you know, the lab was ecstatic. I mean we came in—the only thing that actually kept us down a little bit was that Jim decided that, you know, you shouldn’t be drinking before 11 a.m. So at 11 a.m. sharp the champagne bottles popped open and it was a marvelous experience. I mean it was, you know—I mean everybody knew that Jim was going to win the Nobel Prize. But, you know, but the Nobel Prize committee is always a teaser in the sense that you never know exactly when. You simply know that Jim is going to win the Nobel Prize, but it could’ve been two years later. It could’ve been even five years earlier. But it was at nine years later in 1962.
And I remember the people. I remember the kind of questions. I mean there was all sorts of press questions which are quite silly.
I mean the atmosphere was just a marvelous party. I mean it was just a celebration of something [that] everybody knew was really important. And it’s something, you know, we also recognized that we thought that because we were there, we were part of the lab and so in a sense it was a celebration of the lab as well as a celebration of Jim. I mean, the remarkable thing to me is, you know, Jim at the time when did the structure was 24. And then just then became 25. And, you know, and all of a sudden here you are almost a young kid and you’ve done one of the most important experiments that’s ever been done in the—certainly in the latter half of the century.
And the question is what do you do for an encore? And I think what Jim—the remarkable thing to me is that he’s done, you know, initially came up with the structure with Crick, the structure of DNA. Subsequent to that he organized one of the very best labs at Harvard and in this country. And then after that he comes to Cold Spring Harbor and does a repeat job. And then after that he’s involved in the genome project, and was one of the leaders of that. So he’s had many, many encores. And many of them you would never have guessed. I mean, you know, Jim is not a person—he’s not socially poised, I don’t think. I mean, you know, he’s energetic. He’s all kinetic. He’s always moving. But, you know, you always think that because he’s so honest that you don’t—he would never build bonds. But I think there are many, many people in the whole world that, you know, feel very close to him just because of his straightforwardness.
Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., is a scientist and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and a founding member of the Brain Institute at the University of Utah. He also serves as the Distinguished Professor and Co-Chairman of Human Genetics and Biology at the University of Utah, where he joined the faculty in 1973.
In 2007 Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans for their research on gene targeting techniques, specifically working with mice embryo-derived stem cells. In the 1980s Capecchi pioneered a technology known as "knockout mice" which revolutionized genetic and biomedical research. This technology allows scientists to replace or disrupt specific genes in mice to understand how a similar gene disruption in humans may cause or contribute to diseases.
Capecchi, abandoned and homeless as a 4-year old child in Italy during World War II, was reunited with his mother and immigrated to the United States in 1946. After receiving a B.S. in physics and chemistry from Antioch College in 1961, he joined Jim Watson's Biological laboratory at Harvard University where he received a doctorate in biophysics in 1967. Capecchi remained at Harvard, first as a junior fellow until 1969, followed by four years as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Harvard School of Medicine, until he left for the University of Utah in 1973.
Capecchi is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1991) and the European Academy of Sciences (2002). His other numerous honors include the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research (1992), Gairdner Foundation International Award for Achievements in Medical Science (1993), General Motors Corporation's Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize for Outstanding Basic Science Contributions to Cancer Research (1994), Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences (1996), the Franklin Medal for Advancing Our Knowledge of the Physical Sciences (1997), the University of Utah's Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence (1998), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2001), the National Medal of Science (2001), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (2003), the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) International Award for Cancer Research (2003), and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (2005).