James D. Watson on Mechanics of the HGP
  James D. Watson     Biography    
Recorded: 25 Jul 2003

Oh, it was the creation of these centers. Wally proposed that it be done in one place. I certainly didn’t trust Wally to run it because he’s not very good in delegating authority. And I just thought around ten centers would be much bigger than anything existed and at the same time there wouldn’t be any arguments that the money was all going to California or Massachusetts. So it was—the money wasn’t regarded as “pork” money. Whereas, when they located—when they were locating the big physics accelerator which got cancelled, the one that was to be in Texas. Oh, that was real politics, you know, the money going to Texas and so on and so on. I didn’t want the genome project to be in one place. And it didn’t—which then turned out to be very good that we had others.

I think it was, you know, the genome centers were working. The one real triumph we had was the cloning of the gene for Fragile X, the first one that came out. Which was, needed YACs, was this thing from. So that probably would not have occurred if the human genome project had not started.

You know, the civil servants, say compared to Europe were much less powerful. And you have a peer review and the scientific advisory committees. Well, Jim Wyngaarden believed in the project and he was a strong backer so that was very nice. So I enjoyed working with him. There was no problems.

And, you know, as the project got going then, you know, people like—yeah, I made I guess one decision on the centers that we wanted to support human genetics. So we supported Tom Caskey and Francis Collins. So those were wise decisions. I didn’t want to alienate the human genetics community. We’re not part of, you know, they were going to take over the field. So—and without Francis sort of—it was a good decision about Bernadine Healy choosing Francis. She just thought she wanted to choose a medical person. But it did turn out very good.

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.