Recorded: 09 Apr 2001
The first thing, of course, is the discovery of the structure of DNA; it’s on another level from any other discovery in molecular biology. It’s ranked: Darwin, Mendel, Watson, Crick, [which] is how we tend to think of biology. So that alone puts Watson and Crick in a different category from all other living biologists. But beyond that, to me what makes him special—had he just been a—oh, there are other scientists; I don’t know—just a certain type—it was really what he did as an educator, and did for so many of his students, and building Cold Spring Harbor and bringing people there. How he articulated science in the writing of his textbook [Molecular Biology of the Gene] which was revolutionary. The way he insisted we do the Human Genome Project. It was these things that have caused him to have such as impact. I’m thinking of all of modern molecular biology. But of course, for the students, it was the mentoring he did for all of our lives.
Had he just made the discovery of the structure of DNA and retired, well, he would be a historical figure; we might carve his name on the wall of MIT somewhere. But he wouldn’t have had, in the lives of so many people, the extraordinary impact he had. I think part of it was as an educator, first at Harvard where he built a Department of Molecular Biology and really created the field of molecular biology. It’s hard to remember now—it’s so common, it’s everywhere—but at that time, there were only a few places that had departments of molecular biology. It was being done in a tiny number of places by a tiny number of people. Now everything is just molecular biology. We don’t think about it. So he created that field, then he created the textbook of the field, and then went to Cold Spring Harbor and built that up into a place that was, when it started, a tiny member of remarkable scientists in a very tiny place, again, because the field was tiny. And there were a few buildings and most of them were condemned. And then he built it into this large enterprise and put out a ton of books and Cold Spring Harbor built an educational enterprise. And then, he went on and motivated the Human Genome Project and who else could have convinced people to do it? I’m not sure. Well, maybe Craig Venter, I guess. But he [Jim] brought the attention to it, that this was something to be done. I don’t know who else could have done that. So it’s the whole of his life together. In the long run, he will be remembered for the structure of DNA, but in our lifetime, he is known for impacting, creating the entire field of science and nurturing it.
Nancy Hopkins is a developmental biologist and the Amgen, Inc. Professor of Biology at MIT. Working under Jim Watson and Mark Ptashne, Hopkins earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1971. As a postdoctoral fellow she moved to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where she continued working under Watson researching DNA tumor viruses. In 1973 she joined the MIT faculty as an assistant professor in the Center for Cancer Research, where she researched the mechanisms of replication and leukemogenesis by RNA tumor viruses for 17 years.
Hopkins has also led an ongoing effort to end discrimination against women in science. In 1995 she was appointed Chair of the first Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science at MIT, and in 2000 she was appointed Co-Chair of the first Council on Faculty Diversity at MIT. Hopkins co-authored the fourth edition of Molecular Biology of the Gene. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.