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Romancing the molecule
In 'Genes, Girls, and Gamow,' James D. Watson looks at love and DNA
By Mark Feeney, Globe Staff, 2/27/2002
COLD SPRING HARBOR, N.Y. - Offices of the great and famous have
a dismaying tendency to look alike. The names on the plaques
vary. The photographs bear different inscriptions. But always,
along with the Danish modern furniture, there'll be those
telltale plaques and photographs.
The president's office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, one of
the world's foremost scientific research institutes, would seem
to be no exception. Certainly, the man who works there, James D.
Watson, is very great and very famous: codiscoverer with Francis
Crick of the structure of DNA; Nobel Prize winner; former head
of the Human Genome Project; widely considered the most
important figure in the history of the most important scientific
field of the past half century, molecular biology.
''He's one of those few people who changed the world in a way
people will be talking about 100, 200, 300 years from now,''
says Nancy Hopkins, professor of biology at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and a student of Watson's when he taught
at Harvard during the '60s.
Yet amid the many impressive pieces of memorabilia in Watson's
office, there is at least one item unlikely to be found in any
other office of anyone great and famous: the 2002 Anna
Kournikova wall calendar.
Watson is a man with no need to boast of his accomplish-ments,
but just this once he'll make an exception. ''I got her
autograph two years ago,'' he confides.
More curious than the presence of the bombshell tennis player's
calendar is that its being there is pertinent to Watson's
greatness and fame. For it's indicative of a brashness, a
friskiness, an absolute commitment to going his own way - and an
ability to get away with doing so. As he says with a broad
smile, ''I couldn't hang that there if I was at Harvard.''
The calendar also suggests the forthright, if mostly chaste,
interest in the opposite sex that Watson, 73, has long
demonstrated. (It should be noted that Watson and his wife,
Elizabeth, have been married for 34 years, quite happily it
would appear, and have two grown sons.) That interest is very
much on display in his new book, ''Genes, Girls, and Gamow:
After the Double Helix.'' Not the least of Watson's
accomplishments is his book about the DNA discovery, ''The
Double Helix.'' An enormous bestseller upon publication in 1968,
it's widely considered the single best firsthand account of how
science is done. As the subtitle of the new book suggests,
''Genes, Girls, and Gamow'' is a sequel of sorts.
Watson entered the University of Chicago at age 15. An interest
in ornithology attracted him to biology. Caltech and Harvard
turned him down for graduate study. So he went to Indiana
University, where he turned to microbiology. After getting his
PhD, he won a fellowship to study in Europe and became obsessed
with DNA, ''the most golden of molecules,'' he once called it.
Deciding that Cambridge University was the best place to do DNA
work, Watson went there and met Crick. This was in 1951.
Furthering (others have said poaching) the work of two
University of London scientists, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind
Franklin, Crick and Watson took less than two years to make the
most momentous discovery in biology since Darwin.
An essential coda
It's at that point ''Genes, Girls, and Gamow'' commences. The
book has earned harsh criticism for Watson's focus on his
romantic life (or frequent lack thereof) at the expense of his
science. Yet in a very real sense the book serves as an
essential coda to ''The Double Helix,'' offering not just
additional biographical information but a fuller demonstration
of what it was that allowed so young and inexperienced a man -
inexperienced in science as well as life - to make such a
landmark discovery. How young was Watson? In his mid-20s he went
around carrying a water pistol.
The only reason his pursuit of the double helix isn't regarded
as an act of absolute folly is that it did succeed. But that
shouldn't obscure the fact that Watson's belief he and Crick
could do it really was more than a little crazy. The confidence
and optimism that led Watson to think almost any attractive
young woman he met might be a suitable wife also helped someone
not yet 25 think he could solve the biggest mystery in biology.
In science, as in love, Watson was a profound romantic.
The idea of Watson as romantic true believer is at variance with
the image of him as scientific empire builder. Admirers and
detractors alike acknowledge his hardheadedness - and enviable
record - in scientific gamesmanship. As his friend and onetime
colleague Paul Doty says of Watson's two decades at Harvard,
''He knew the age and expected tenure of everyone in the place.
He was a great planner.'' When Watson took over at Cold Spring
Harbor in 1968, it was considered a dying institution. The
90-acre campus on Long Island's north shore was seen as a dead
end. With an administrative acumen that may have surprised even
him, Watson remade it into a dynamic force especially noted for
its cancer research. And without the immediate credibility lent
by his leadership, it's difficult to imagine the Human Genome
Project's succeeding as it did.
So part of what's so disconcerting about ''Genes, Girls, and
Gamow'' is seeing someone so used to getting what he wanted
professionally not getting what he wanted personally. What makes
it more striking is the innocence of his desires. These were the
'50s, after all, and while Watson clearly had nothing against
sex, it was love he was after. ''I went around reading Jane
Austen novels,'' Watson says. ''I was looking for a wife. It
wasn't about lust; it was romance.''
Doty, who met Watson in 1955, agrees. ''He never boasted about
sexual conquests or anything like that. It was sort of at the
level of banter. He was continuously alert to female
A clatter of enthusiasms
That alertness remained in operation for some time. Hopkins
notes how much it amused the students in Watson's laboratory at
Harvard during the '60s. ''He would constantly say, `I think
I've met the one.'''
Eventually, Watson did marry and continued to climb ever higher
in the scientific firmament. So what happens to a young man in a
hurry once he's gotten where he wanted to go? If the young man
is Watson, he keeps right on going. Hopkins speaks of her former
professor's ''childlike quality.'' She recalls how his students
''felt he was one of us, someone of our age. He never lost it.
He still has it. That childlike quality is central to him.''
Watson remains a bundle of puppyish energy, a clatter of
enthusiasms. ''The only way to stay young is to avoid old
people, so I play 25-year-olds,'' he says of his thrice-weekly
tennis matches. ''When I went to Harvard [in the '50s], people
of 50 were old. You didn't think much of them. They'd stopped
having fun. And I still find people of about 50 aren't much
Watson has the ultimate grand-old-man resume (with snowy hair
and shiny pate to match), but in almost every other regard he
remains the lean and hungry enfant terrible. He moves a bit like
a rag doll - loose, bouncy, unconstrained - and that's how he
expresses himself, too. In a world where lab coats are rarely
removed, Watson is notorious for unbuttoned views.
''It's never fun being in trouble,'' he says with a shrug. ''I
would never say anything [just] to be unpleasant; it was always
to get something done. So being a boat rocker, sometimes you're
thrown out of the boat. That's the price you may pay. Like
getting fired by [National Institutes of Health director]
Bernadine Healy,'' as head of the Human Genome Project.
Technically, Watson resigned the post, which he held from 1988
to 1992. Depending on whom you talk to, he resigned because of
possible conflict-of-interest issues over his financial
holdings - or he was pushed out because he'd opposed Healy's
wanting NIH to patent genes.
Either way, Watson is equally proud of his shepherding of the
project and his departure from it. ''It was good for me getting
fired. The rule is, if you don't respect your boss, you should
quit before you're fired.'' He grins. ''I didn't quit.''
It's a terrific grin: eager, luminous, a little bit goofy. What
makes it irresistible is the arrangement of elements. Watson has
startlingly light-blue eyes and trampoline eyebrows. He also has
an oddly skewed upper lip. When his brows lift, eyes widen, and
lip rises, it's like watching a curtain go up.
Both sides, now and then
Watson's buoyancy brings to mind something Winston Churchill
once said about Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of Watson's boyhood
heroes. Meeting FDR, Churchill remarked, ''was like opening your
first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.''
In Watson's case, there is a caveat: Even the best champagne can
produce a hangover. The frankness of his views is only part of
the problem. Another is his ability to be both acute and
guileless. It's one of the things that makes ''The Double
Helix'' such an absorbing book: The reader can hardly decide
which is more remarkable - how deftly he analyzes others or how
much he reveals about himself.
It is one thing to experience such a personality on the page, or
as a friend or mentor. But to do so as a rival could be nothing
short of intolerable. To Watson, DNA was the most important
thing in the world. That being so, he also felt it should be the
most important thing to the Harvard biology department. Anyone
who might question that, such as his colleague E. O. Wilson,
would be made to suffer the consequences. Watson's capacity to
offend was so great that Wilson, a man almost as famous for his
manners as his scientific ability, once called Watson ''the
Caligula of biology'' and ''the most unpleasant person I had
''That doesn't fit now,'' Wilson says, citing Watson's great
success at Cold Spring Harbor as a mark of his growth. ''You
don't do that with careless behavior and indifference to other
Watson will get an opportunity to portray his side of those
battles. He's completed a volume of memoirs focusing on his
Harvard years, 1955 to 1976. ''Oh, I can't talk about that,'' he
says at least a half-dozen times over the course of a 75-minute
interview. ''It's in the new book.''
Instead, Watson prefers to dwell on the years just before
Harvard. ''In '53, the number of people really interested in DNA
in the world probably was less than 50,'' he says. Watson likens
the arrival of molecular biology in the second half of the last
century to that of nuclear physics in the first.
''It was one of the absolutely great eras in science, from 1950
to, say, 1970,'' he says. ''Cambridge [England] in the '50s was
like Copenhagen was like in the '20s and '30s, and Francis
[Crick] was the [Niels] Bohr [figure].''
Watson thinks he knows what the next scientific epoch will
center on. ''Understanding the brain,'' he says, ''is the next
To explain what he means, Watson recalls the funeral of Doty's
wife, Helga. ''There was a reading from Corinthians. A beautiful
passage: The greatest gift of God to humans is love. It probably
is the most important thing about us: the bonding in human
society. But what's its basis? What makes the mother love the
baby? How many genes have to work together? What does love look
like in the brain?
''There will be a merger of psychology and biology. There are
real big things out there that seem impossible to explain, but
you just want to prove you can do it. You can't think of
anything else but. It's in your blood.''
Mark Feeney can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page G1 of the Boston Globe on 2/27/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.
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