David Cox on Jim Watson, Personality and Influence: The Human Genome Project
  David Cox     Biography    
Recorded: 02 Jun 2003

So this is my personal view, but the reason why we have the sequence of the human genome is because of Jim. He realized that at the time everyone had things quite confused. They were worried about to make sure that we would have the variation in the genome. That we would, you know, understand the genes and have the cDNA’s that we would deal with the function. And so there was a lot of push from a variety of powerful scientists to make sure all of those things were part of the genome project. Jim in a very directed way said we want the sequence of the DNA. I don’t want to hear about this other crap. And so it annoyed a lot of people because it seemed like it was very single minded just getting the sequence of the DNA. If Jim hadn’t been so dogmatic about that we wouldn’t have had the sequence of the DNA. So as a result of that there were a lot of very well respected scientists that were really against the genome project. And when Jim was in Washington and leading it, this single mindedness of focus that he was doing I think annoyed a lot of people. An example of that is that he went and recruited specific people to put in grants to be a part of the early genome centers. Now a lot of people think that, you know, that he picked people and figured out who was going to get money. I mean that wasn’t true. It was peer-reviewed grants. I mean no one could figure out who was actually going to get the centers, but he did pick people who he thought—I mean he picked Rick Myers and myself.

But some examples of stories during this time is that we had these endless meetings about people jockeying back and forth about how much money we should spend, how it was going to be organized in terms of getting the sequence done. And to be able to have this happen and work out politically is that I remember one meeting very well and that the—I think I can’t remember I think it was out in the countryside in Maryland someplace. And the thought was that we would invite these people who were against the genome project and have one big love fest to explain to them why we were doing it and then it would make good political sense. And they would understand and then they would be on our side. And so some of these people, one who I remember in particular was Don Brown, a really well respected scientist. There were a number of other ones there, but Don I remember because he was one of the most articulate spokespeople of how getting the DNA sequence would be just like, you know, not a good plan. And he went on and on. And Jim was doing his best, right, to you know have other people’s viewpoints so that we could get these people in the camp. And finally halfway through in the middle of some things Don Brown was saying, Jim said, “What a waste of a good mind.” So it ruined the entire meeting because now these guys realized that actually no one who wanted to do the sequencing thought they had a brain anyway and so everyone left and it was like a ridiculous meeting. So this was a classic example of Jim being so single minded in terms of wanting to get it done that he just couldn’t tolerate being political.

Another classic example at a separate one of these meetings was [that] bioinformatics was a really, really difficult problem. We pissed tons and tons of dollars down the drain trying to figure out how to organize a plan to have a database for the human genome sequence. There were many skeletons buried of people who weren’t successful at this. So that many different people tried. So in one classic meeting, Dieter Sole, who early on was a scientist who worked very hard to try and get the bioinformatics stuff going but that when he giving his report it was clear that it hadn’t worked out and so Jim was getting more and more impatient. So Jim said something and Dieter Sole said, “Well, I talked to Elliot Meyerowitz about this.” And Jim burst in and he said, “Elliot Meyerowitz! That twerp! What does he know about bioinformatics?” And Eric Lander said, “What Dr. Watson means to say is Dr. Meyerowitz is an outstanding scientist. But his expertise really isn’t in bioinformatics.” So I think this gives a feeling of a couple of stories of how Jim’s tolerance for lack of accomplishing the task. You know, there were a lot of bodies along the way. And in talking about the competition between people those are specific examples of how Jim may have been viewed as ruthless but in fact he just had no tolerance for not solving the problems and moving along. He was on a mission and most of the time he barreled ahead on that mission and it worked fine.

The only time I’ve ever seen Jim where he was surprised was when Bernadine Healy assassinated him. And she did this in a really very complicated way. There was a time when both Bob Waterston and John Sulston were approached to do sequencing in a company and there were several people that approached him, so it’s not just one person. And Jim really put the kybosh on that. And these were really very powerful people. And they got really pissed off by that. And so what happened though is that they didn’t get Jim directly, but that they got him in a typical Washington fashion way through an apparent conflict of interest. And Dr. Healy, Jim made no bones about how he felt about the concept of EST patenting. And that got directed in a very personal way to Bernadine Healy. So she had no love for Jim. And that when these businessmen who were basically thwarted in their efforts to have Sulston and Waterston do a company is that they basically fed information to Bernadine Healy about Jim’s relationships with Glaxo and other companies and how he—and Bernadine looked into it and saw that to the letter of the law that Jim hadn’t filled out exactly the right papers. And that she got him on it. And as far as I know to this very day, Jim handles his conflicts better than any person I have ever known. And that he speaks really strongly for public access, but he understands the value of private. And he does that balancing act very, very well. So to my knowledge this was a really unfair way of getting him. But they got him big time Washington style. So that day which I call “Black Friday” we had one of our genome advisory meetings and we were in Washington and I was in my room a little bit early. And so my phone rang it and it was Jim. And he said, “Dave. Get everybody together. We’re meeting earlier. And we’re going to be down in a certain room.” I said, “What is it about?” And he said, “Don’t ask me questions. Just do what I tell you to do.” And so it was strange because Mark Guyer, this large group of people. I don’t know why Jim called me. But we went down there and he spent about two hours explaining how it wasn’t his fault, right. And that is the only time I’ve ever seen him in a situation where he wasn’t in control of what was going on. And so I think it just illustrates that no matter how powerful a person is, is that they can’t keep other powerful people from assassinating them. And I think that this was very painful to Jim because he cared so much about stuff. But he left because he had to leave. But it gave me a very good insight into the workings of Washington and how it is that people who really haven’t done anything bad can be killed politically. It was a very sobering and sad situation. Interestingly though it was probably time for Jim to go anyway because what we needed is for more of the kind of slick and interactive cohesion that Francis Collins put together. And we were really, really lucky that Francis was picked. And more importantly agreed to do the genome project, to be the director. Francis had really great science on going at that time in Michigan. And I think he sacrificed a lot both personally and scientifically to do this. So that was the only good thing that came out of this. But that it was the only time that I’ve seen Jim pretty nonplussed.

David Cox received B.A. and M.S. degrees from Brown University and M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Washington. From 1980 to 1993, Dr. Cox held faculty positions in the Departments of Pediatrics, Biochemistry and Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. In 1993, he became Professor of Genetics and Pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine as well as the Co-director of the Stanford Genome Center.

Dr Cox was a co-founder of Perlegen, and has been Chief Scientific Officer of the Company since its formation in 2001. He has served on several international and national councils and commissions including the Council of the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) and the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC). He presently serves as a member of the Health Sciences Policy Board of the Institute of Medicine. Dr Cox's honors include election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cox was a member of one of the first groups to begin sequencing the human genome. His relationship with Watson developed from his interest in Cox’s innovative approach to sequencing, called radiation hybrid mapping.

He attended the 68th Cold Spring Harbor symposium to celebrate the completion of the rough draft of the human sequence.