Maynard Olson on Jim Watson
  Maynard Olson     Biography    
Recorded: 01 Jun 2003

So Jim Watson is—had an enormous influence on me starting a long time before I met him. His book The Molecular Biology of the Gene really played a significant role in my decision to leave chemistry and start being a geneticist and genomicist. But personally he has always struck me as an amazing figure, a bundle of contradictions. He, you know, he can be amazingly considerate and human in interacting with people. And he can be harsh and thoughtless and, you know, hurt people. And it’s all bundled up. You know, this is Jim.

He actually now in recent years I think has changed. He’s developed a much broader perspective on life and his life. And he is much more attentive to his relationship with, you know, with people. I’m not an intimate of his but I see this. And I’ve commented to other scientists who have known him for a long time and they see this. It’s quite interesting. And of course, his whole life story is so unique. I mean the double helix actually was a big deal just because it’s now so widely recognized as being a big deal. You know people start to get suspicious you know with all this commotion. You know it must need a good—all this contrived publicity or something. The double helix was one of really a small handful, really less than a handful of two of three things that humans have learned about nature that fundamentally altered our ability to understand the natural world. And Jim knew that actually. He—I think he was in awe of what had happened. That this project, that they were working on suddenly opening up this level of insight into the world. And what—he was 23 or 24 . And that was, you know, a lot to deal with. And he dealt with it in a unique way. But what I’d, you know, say most fundamentally about him in terms of his role at the lab and in the scientific community is that he used his fame to do a lot of really good things. He built the lab into a modern institution. It had a wonderful history but was in actuality, a very precarious state when he took it over and now it’s a booming, you know, thoroughly modern but very strong scientific institution. And it has this huge outreach program to—it’s sort of the place that scientists like to come and learn things.

Maynard V. Olson received his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from California Institute of Technology and Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Stanford University (1970). After five years on the chemistry faculty at Dartmouth College, he shifted his research efforts to molecular genetics at Washington University in St Louis and the University of Washington in Seattle. He now serves as Director of the University of Washington Human Genome Center, Professor of Genetics and Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Computer Science & Engineering.

A pioneer in genomic research, Dr. Olson launched the ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979. He also led efforts to develop yeast artificial chromosomes (YACs) that allowed for the study of large portions of the human genome and proved invaluable in the tracking of disease-related genes, and he introduced STS-content mapping which led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes.

Dr. Olson is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal, the City of Medicine Award, and the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project.

Influenced by Watson’s book, Molecular Biology of the Gene, Olsen started working with the genome in the 1970’s. He met Jim Watson when they both served on Bruce Albert’s Committee of the National Research Council. Olsen also helped to organize several genome meetings at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory during the 1980s.