James D. Watson on Jim Watson, Writer
  James D. Watson     Biography    
Recorded: 25 Jul 2003

Well, you have to write about something that tells a good story. Whether it’s a scientific story or anything. You have to have something—a good story means that people will want to read it. So you’ve got to—and good writing, you know, in a sense should be easy to read. So, you know, in my textbooks, you know, I tried to have a catchy sentence to start with so you’d know what the message was. So instead of having to read a paragraph and not sure what the paragraph was leading to—that’s certainly defined my texts. It was really a consequence of being a university lecturer and trying to, you know, prepares lecture notes.

Someone at Indiana when I was there, you know, passed out notes. And I just found it very useful not to take notes when you are going to class because you couldn’t both, write and think and try to understand at the same time. All you do is to write down. And at the end of the lecture you are, you know, you try and think—whereas the other __, you know, you can actually try to understand what someone is saying. So—I think in the archives you know this. The notes are passed out when I give my virus course so I started that. And there the notes was again to try and—you’ll just put down things that you probably should remember or at least the headings that you remember.

I never look forward to it in the sense that you don’t know whether you’re going—I’ve got to, you know, write something for this Lewis Miller thing. It’s going to be work, you know, to make it readable. Again, you know you’ve got to decide who the audience is and so the audience has to be, you know how you make the genome interesting to the art world. It’s not an occasion to write, you know, it’s got to go with the picture. So it’s got to be a broader thing, so that mean I work. I mean in a sense I haven’t yet tried to outline it…

I mean it’s work. I’d rather play tennis than write. You know, more instant gratification. I mean it’s a—I revise things a very large number of times and it’s certainly helpful now—easier with the word processor. So seldom, you know, does the sentence, you know, do I write it correctly the first time. It is generally contracted, cut out a third of the words, in a sentence, you know, sometimes the order—

A member of the Time 100 ‘Century’s Greatest Minds’, Dr. James Watson’s life in science has taken him from the revolutionary discovery of the structure of DNA to the head of the National Institute of Health’s Human Genome Project, and places between.

Dr. Watson was born in 1928 in Chicago, and enrolled at the University of Chicago when he was just 15. His graduate studies in genetics with Salvador Luria took him to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for the first time in 1948. His graduate work would eventually bring him to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, where, together with fellow scientists Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick and Dr. Watson would discover how the four-nucleotide bases arrange themselves to create the unique identities of each living organism. Their account of the structure of DNA, published in Nature, would win them the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology. Watson's bestselling account of his time at Cavendish, The Double Helix, was named the No. 7 best work of nonfiction by the Modern Library.

Watson spent two decades at Harvard University, where he penned the revolutionary biology textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene in 1965. Dr. Watson's distinguished academic career led him to the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968, where he has pushed the lab towards important steps in cancer research and the causes of mental disease. From 1988 to 1992, Dr. Watson was appointed to head the National Institute of Health in the Human Genome Project. Dr. Watons's genome was the first to be decoded and was made public as part of the project in 2007. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, he has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. After forty years as a brilliant educator and administrator, Dr. Watson retired as Chancellor of the laboratory in 2007.