Mario Capecchi on Jim Watson, Personality & Influence
  Mario Capecchi     Biography    
Recorded: 27 Feb 2003

I mean I think we had up times and bad times. We had some battles. We had some disagreements. And most of the time in retrospect Jim was right. But, you know, he’s a volatile person. I was a volatile person. I remember at one point one of my very early projects I was not convinced of the data and I had put a lot of time gathering this particular data. And it’s running a model E and the readout are glass plates of which then the information is on those glass plates. And I had literally thousand of these. And Jim wanted me to publish it. And I didn’t feel that it was—you know, I wasn’t satisfied with the data. So the only way I thought of that I could not publish that paper was to destroy all the data.

So I gathered all of these glass plates in a big box and went out to the trash can and dumped them in a huge dumpster. And they all broke into thousand of pieces so there’s no way to retrieve it. And Jim was really angry. I mean he actually came this close to throwing me out of the lab. And later on he changed his mind. But, you know, so it’s not that we were friends all the time buddy-buddies. I mean because, you know, he speaks out his mind. He has a particular direction that he wants to go in. And he lets you know it. But on the other hand he’s also reversible. I mean I did get back into the lab. And in the process it was an enormous growing experience. I mean I think because he made you think on your own feet.

I remember one time that we went to—it was actually almost embarrassing. When we went to a seminar at MIT which [FIRST NAME ??]Garen was actually who worked in suppressive for a number of years and trying to figure out the mechanisms and trying to do it or by genetics. And I had worked on the mechanisms by biochemistry and actually had gotten the solution. That is that suppressors were run—the suppression mechanism must be a suppressor tRNA. Jim went to the seminar. I went to the seminar. And Garen was giving his talk. And at the end Jim was urging me to go up in front of this audience and tell them what the solution was. But, you know, I was very reluctant to do this because you know all of a sudden you’re upstaging a person. And it was—you know, and I felt almost embarrassed to do it. But at his urging I go up to the front and give my talk. And it was in a sense sad because it was—it’s sort of a young Turk coming in and sort of displaying all of a sudden, you know, we know can do it in a very direct way as opposed to a very complicated genetic argument. So again he felt it was important to simply relay the information irregardless of who’s up there and what the consequences are in terms of personal. Whereas most of us are much more reticent to do those kinds of things. He’s very bold.

Mario R. Capecchi, Ph.D., is a scientist and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and a founding member of the Brain Institute at the University of Utah. He also serves as the Distinguished Professor and Co-Chairman of Human Genetics and Biology at the University of Utah, where he joined the faculty in 1973.

In 2007 Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with Oliver Smithies and Martin Evans for their research on gene targeting techniques, specifically working with mice embryo-derived stem cells. In the 1980s Capecchi pioneered a technology known as "knockout mice" which revolutionized genetic and biomedical research. This technology allows scientists to replace or disrupt specific genes in mice to understand how a similar gene disruption in humans may cause or contribute to diseases.

Capecchi, abandoned and homeless as a 4-year old child in Italy during World War II, was reunited with his mother and immigrated to the United States in 1946. After receiving a B.S. in physics and chemistry from Antioch College in 1961, he joined Jim Watson's Biological laboratory at Harvard University where he received a doctorate in biophysics in 1967. Capecchi remained at Harvard, first as a junior fellow until 1969, followed by four years as Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Harvard School of Medicine, until he left for the University of Utah in 1973.

Capecchi is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (1991) and the European Academy of Sciences (2002). His other numerous honors include the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research (1992), Gairdner Foundation International Award for Achievements in Medical Science (1993), General Motors Corporation's Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Prize for Outstanding Basic Science Contributions to Cancer Research (1994), Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences (1996), the Franklin Medal for Advancing Our Knowledge of the Physical Sciences (1997), the University of Utah's Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence (1998), the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (2001), the National Medal of Science (2001), the Wolf Prize in Medicine (2003), the Pezcoller Foundation-AACR (American Association for Cancer Research) International Award for Cancer Research (2003), and the March of Dimes Prize in Developmental Biology (2005).