Recorded: 30 May 2003
Well, I think the relationship between them is very interesting. It’s not just that both have had very successful of a totally different kind. But they’ve always interacted in curious ways. I mean, those two years in Cambridge which was a very unusual meeting of minds. But afterwards one’s taken aback in horror when you read the letter that Crick wrote about The Double Helix trying to urge Jim not to publish it. Calling it a betrayal of their friendship. You want to know, well how could Jim possibly have risked a friendship like that just for the sake of a book. And why is he doing it? Now, it’s true that Crick has now forgiven him. And now he says joking away that the only person who came out badly from the book was Jim. But still, if you earned the friendship of a man like Crick why would you ever risk it. So it’s very hard to understand Jim’s psychology.
And there’s some strange tension between them which I don’t think any biographer explored. And Jim describes, I think, in his Girls, Genes, and Gamow [Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix] book how he played a trick on Crick. It was a rather cruel one. He advises him—he sends him a false invitation for a meeting from Pauling and Crick was all excited. Well, that’s not a kind thing to do. It was sort of—I guess Jim gets sort of needling—I think he greatly admired Crick in many ways and looked up to him. But he also needed to prove his own independence from him. And that’s why he tried so hard after he left Cambridge to reestablish himself as a scientist. And I think he—I would say he failed and he didn’t prove himself Francis’s equal in terms of theoretical biology because after all I think Francis had no equal. But Jim did succeed in a very different way and that was principally in building up that wonderful lab at Harvard and Cold Spring Harbor and then the genome. But those are his achievements. That’s how I think in his own mind he establishes equality with Francis. But it’s a very complicated relationship. I don’t pretend to understand—I tried to do a short article when we noticed the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery. And what little was on the record of the interaction between them I tried to include but I didn’t do more than scratch the surface.
It’s very hard to see into Crick’s mind. He has many sorts of layers of defense. He’s very sort of sardonic. And mostly and if you ask him about Jim, he’ll make these sort of little slightly sardonic remarks like, “Well, Jim is my publicity agent.” He said this when he did that book on the brain. I think he—I assume that he liked Jim very much. And Jim himself says how generous Francis was to “me.” I mean they shared the credit completely for that discovery. In a way I suspect that one could say that Crick was the intellectual leader because after all he understood the crystallography which he taught to Jim. But Crick’s always given full credit to Jim for being the one who saw how the base pairing must go. In fact, both of them have said that they couldn’t have made the discovery without the other. So it is a wonderful—on a whole it was a great intellectual achievement, it was a sort of shared achievement. So I think Francis has always looked with affection on Jim, like a younger brother perhaps. Jim has said specifically he regards Francis as like an older brother, you know with whom one competes. But I think Francis has often been puzzled by some of the things that Jim has done, like The Double Helix like this recent claim to have had with messenger RNA, but I can’t say more than.
I think it’s always difficult for an institution when the founder departs. And so-and so much of this reflects Jim’s personality and I guess also in a practical term, his amazing fundraising abilities. But he set it up with such a firm basis, it’s very different from how he found it. I assume it will continue much as it is, for a time. If only I could find someone like Jim, but not quite sure there is anyone like [him].
Nicholas Wade received a B.A. in natural sciences from King's College in Cambridge (1964). He was deputy editor of (italics) Nature magazine in London and then became that journal's Washington correspondent. He joined (italics) Science magazine in Washington as a reporter and later moved to (italics)The New York Times, where he has been an editorial writer, concentrating his writing on issues of defense, space, science, medicine, technology, genetics, molecular biology, the environment, and public policy, a science reporter, and science editor. He is the author or coauthor of several books including (italics) LIFE SCRIPT: How The Human Genome Discoveries Will Transform Medicine And Enhance Your Health (2002).
Covering the Human Genome Project for the (italics) New York Times since 1990, Wade has interviewed Watson on various occasions and visited Cold Spring Harbor for the annual Genome symposium.