Michael Ashburner on Jim Watson at CSHL
  Michael Ashburner     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

Jim is a remarkable man. It took a very long time to feel comfortable in his presence. And I remember once I was here at Banbury. He heard I was here and his secretary phoned me up and said [that] Dr. Watson wants to see you. So I made an appointment. I came down the next day. And by that time Jim had clearly forgotten why he wanted to see me. You know, I walked to his office and we made small talk for about five minutes. And then I kind of looked at the ceiling and after about five minutes I realized that Jim had totally forgotten. So I said, Jim, you must be very busy, and I left.

Jim has this great love of everything English and that’s fun. So he has all these nice English men around him like David Stewart and Jan and John Inglis. It’s a great surprise that he never managed to find an English director, of course, he got an Australian, so it’s almost the same thing.

So I’ve seen Jim in Cambridge—Jim, we gave Jim an honorary degree in Cambridge some years ago.

I’m very fond of Liz as well, well last year - so when my wife comes with me, she does sometimes, we have dinner with the Watson’s or lunch with the Watson’s.

Of course, when I came here in 1970, although Jim was director, I think since 1968, John Cairns was still here. And John was living in Airslie. And I think Jim was probably still kind of commuting between here and Harvard, I can’t remember. The place was very rundown. The accommodations—it was awful. The infamous Page Motel up the hill, basically where Beckman is now, the sheets were so damp you just didn’t want to sleep in the bed. It was an appalling place. The food was awful. The food is still—Cold Spring Harbor food. But it was also much wilder. And the meetings and courses were, I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m getting old or getting older or because it was the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Things were much wilder. I mean you rarely got to bed before 2 or 3 and usually ended up on the beach. And I mean food fights in Blackford where both memorable and dangerous. You know, there’s this traditional end of meeting banquet where you have leathery lobster and totally tough lobster which no one can eat. And people just used to throw whole lobsters around the room. And that’s kind of dangerous.

Particular meetings were really at courses. You must have been told about the plate race. Where we started between the yeast course and the bacterial course and now it involves any course which happens to be here at the time. And after that everyone gets totally drunk. But in the 1970’s it was pretty wild, actually.

I think it must have been the 1973 meeting. Jim had a very beautiful secretary who is a redhead, I can’t remember her name. But she was very lovely. And I remember at the cocktails before the meeting banquet on the lawn in front of Blackford, she came up to me and said, come with me. So anyways, we went to her car on Bungtown Road and she opened the trunk and there’s the biggest stash of dope I’ve ever seen in my life. So there were three or four of us just going around the cocktails sort of handing people “stiffs,” you know, and Jim was very upset actually, but we got everybody totally stoned. And we used to have bonfires on the beach regularly. And there were boats down there. I don’t know if they’re still there. But you used to be able to go down to the spit and just take out a sailboat, and that was fun.

But it always was been a problem at Cold Spring Harbor.

Mila Pollock: A problem? What?

Michael Ashburner: There is no privacy here.

Michael Ashburner, a leader in Drosophila Genetics and bioinformatics, received his B.A. (1964), M.A. (1968), Ph.D. (1968) and Sc.D. (1978) from the University of Cambridge, where he is currently professor of Biology in the Department of Genetics and a Professional Fellow of Churchill College.

He has been the joint head of European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and was co-founder of Flybase, the primary online database for Drosophila genetics and molecular biology, the Gene Ontology Consortium, an effort to coordinate biological databases through a defined taxonomy of gene function, and the Crete Meetings, a bi-annual event focusing on the developmental and molecular biology of Drosophila melanogaster.

Among many honors, he is the recipient of the G.J. Mendel Medal (Czech Republic 1998) and the George W. Beadle Medal (Genetics Society of America 1999).

Michael Ashburner