Bruce Alberts on Jim Watson
  Bruce Alberts     Biography    
Recorded: 22 Aug 2008

: I first met Jim, he taught a little bit of a biochemistry course that I took at Harvard, I guess as a junior. Anyway he walked in to…I had to sit in the first row ’cause I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. But he actually gave good lecture. It must have been…maybe it was part of a biology course…I can’t remember what course it was. Anyway he was teaching you know for like two weeks. And I still remember I had to sit in the front row because I couldn’t understand anything. But, you know, he was a great hero of us all because of the double helix at the time which was the greatest excitement in science at that time. And, at any rate, somehow when I was a Harvard undergraduate I was working for Paul Doty and Paul was a good friend of Jim’s. And somehow I got… Jim got to know me. I’m not quite sure how. But he was very interested in young people. In that he was very supportive as I was working as an early graduate student on DNA replication and as I was just…just seemed to be interested in anything I was doing and very generous with his time. I think he was generally interested in young scientists and was I guess he must have recognized that he had a special effect on us. And then when he published the Molecular Biology of the Gene, it’s hard to imagine how inspirational that book was. Because before that there wasn’t anything…

Jim and Paul were very good friends and so I actually…Paul had gave his Nobel Prize parties, and I went to that. And it was quite amazing for a graduate student to be invited to this Nobel Prize party at Paul Doty’s house.

So I went to Geneva in 1965. Fall of 1965. After failing my thesis exam and getting delayed six months. And I would only stay there for a year because I already had jobs as an Assistant Professor ...But during this same period Jim Watson decided to come there to work with Tissières on… we thought he was taking a sabbatical. Actually he was writing The Double Helix, secretly. Actually we didn’t know about it until a ski trip to…We took a ski trip to St. Moritz in late spring of 1966. And on the train to St. Moritz Jim decided to pass out typed chapters of his Double Helix. And it was incredible. We didn’t even know he was working on this book. And we all got different chapters and were hilarious reading this thing. It was a wonderful experience. I still remember the chapter that opens, I got the chapter that opens talking about Josh Lederberg. About how he had this imposing images of a great intellect, and every year he’d come back and talk about his new work on bacterial conjugation. This was when Jim was a young student, I guess. And that every year he seemed to gain weight as well. And so it seemed that he would soon expand to fill the universe. It’s still in there. That sentence which we all were laughing about it’s still in the book, in the final book. Anyway, so that was great. And then on the same ski trip he was not married. I was with my wife Betty. And Jim was explicitly using us to get him seated next to beautiful women in the bar or…I had this task of trying to follow this woman from the lab that he was interested in. I wasn’t quite sure who it was. She was a very good skier, and Jim wasn’t. So I was trying to get him next to her on the ski slope which was very hard, because Jim couldn’t ski nearly as fast as she could [laughter.] In fact he kept on threatening to fall off the lift so it was difficult. So that was an interesting experience. This was before he was married and so quite legitimate. He was trying to find a… I guess a wife or girlfriend. But that was a different side of Jim. And of course, it was kind of strange, because he was this famous professor. He wasn’t that much older than me. But quite a bit older I guess. More like ten years older than me. But anyway, so, so this famous professor and Nobel Prize winner and here my wife and I were trying to find him a date. [Laughter]

But any way, Jim is been a great figure in American science, or international science. In a sense, that he’s done some amazing things like not only the textbooks that he inspired, and the lab that he built. I mean I was there, I was a member of the Cold Spring Harbor board because I was representing Princeton when I was Assistant Professor, at the very early days. You know everybody thought his ideas were nuts. I mean he was just so expansive, I mean he wanted to do all these amazing things. And I still remember one day he wanted to buy, he proposed he was going to buy the land of a yacht mooring outside the lab. And he proposed this to the Board of Trustees, and the chairman of the Board of Trustees was a famous banker, a local guy, a very nice person. And so we considered, and we said we are not going to do this. And Jim then walks out and says, I give you five minutes to reconsider or I’m resigning. I mean this is an amazing…I was a young person, and I’d never seen anybody acting this way. So of course we bought the yacht mooring, and it turned out well. I mean…and then he wanted to go into neurobiology, you know …crazy. He just had these dreams that seemed impossible and he managed to accomplish them. So there, and then I also admire the way he treated the students in his lab. People like Joan Steitz could say much more about this. But I mean he didn’t put his name on papers unless he actually made an intellectual contribution. Just the opposite of this horrible practice that people put their name on your paper if you’re using their lab space. I mean…he’s a very ethical scientist, very high standards.

Bruce Alberts, currently Editor-in-chief of Science, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the University of California and United States Science Envoy. He received A.B. (1960) in Biochemical Science from Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Ph.D. (1965) from Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1966 he joined Department of Chemistry at the Princeton University and after 10 years he became professor and vice chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysic at the UCSF.

Alberts work is best known for his work on the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He is one of the authors of The Molecular Biology of the Cell, a major textbook in the field. He served two-six years terms as a president of National Academy of Science (1993-2005). During his administration at NAS, he was involved in developing the landmark of National Science Education standards.

Among many honors and awards (16 honorary degrees), he is Co-chair of the InterAcademy Council and a trustee of Gordon and Betty Moore Fundation.

More Information: Wikipedia, UCSF