Recorded: 23 Apr 2001
My impression was that Jim was not a quick study. It actually took a while to teach him things, but that once he learned it, he really understood it. I think his writing, his Molecular Biology of the Gene, was so clear and so effective partly because, I think, he had a real strong picture of what was the right way. After he learned something he would develop something in his head. I remember there were predictions, when he wrote the book, of things that hadn’t been found yet, and he guessed right. He had a very good intuition about the way things were based on the way—what was known at the time. I think anybody who grapples with understanding things is a better teacher, because they understood what it meant to not quite understand it and then they can somehow use that information to teach other people better.
When he wrote Molecular Biology of the Gene, he got back some letters from people saying: “There’s an error on page thirty-seven;” “There is an error in Figure 14.” My wife, whose maiden name was Ann Baker, was a graduate student also at Harvard in Dave Denhardt’s lab, and Jim asked her if she would be willing to go through to look over the chapters carefully. That was the years when they did the reprinting. He said he would pay her five dollars an error and she found something like 200 errors, and he was quite impressed, I think, that she read it so carefully. He had no idea that there were so many errors. Anybody who has read The Double Helix [knows that] it’s a very compelling story. I remember in 1988 when his 60th birthday party was here, all his students came back in the afternoon and they showed the movie The Double Helix with Jeff Goldblum. It was exciting, it gave me goose pimples, I don’t know, I think there are so few books that captured the excitement of scientific discovery like that.
Richard Burgess is a geneticist who has been an important figure in cancer, microbial, and molecular research. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University under Jim Watson in 1969 and went on to work with Alfred Tissieres at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
He is currently researching RNA polymerases, monoclonal antibodies (MAbs), molecular genetics, computer-based sequence and structure analysis, and biochemistry at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Reaearch at the University of Wisconsin.