NYTimes.com/By Selling Prize, a DNA Pioneer Hopes to Reclaim Some Prestige

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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Seven years after one of the godfathers of DNA, James D. Watson, lost some of his reputation through remarks about race, he is hoping for a measure of redemption by putting his Nobel Prize medal up for auction on Thursday and donating much of the proceeds to educational institutions.

Dr. Watson, with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, received the award in 1962 for the discovery nine years earlier of the double-helix structure of DNA, which revealed how genetic traits were transmitted through heredity. This has become the foundation of the now booming field of genomics, which has revolutionized the treatment of disease.

But he is also well known as a provocateur, a reputation advanced by his candid accounts in his 1968 memoir, “The Double Helix,” of competition among scientists, and cemented in 2007, when he questioned the I.Q. of black people. Though he apologized, saying there was no scientific basis for his remarks, the outcry over them made him retire from his position as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.

“Thomas Jefferson said some controversial things too in his life,” said Francis Wahlgren, international director of printed books and manuscripts for Christie’s, which is auctioning the medal. “As far as Christie’s is concerned, the monumental discovery of the double helix is what this is about, and the 1962 recognition is an essential part of that. Posterity will remember him for that, whether he said things that are controversial or not.”

Christie’s estimates the medal will sell for $2.5 million to $3.5 million. Mr. Wahlgren said the medal, made out of 23-karat gold, is worth about $20,000 to $30,000 for its gold alone — just a trifle in proportion to its weight as intellectual property.

Christie’s is also auctioning Dr. Watson’s notes for his Nobel acceptance speech (estimated worth: $300,000 to $400,000) and the manuscript for the lecture he gave the day after he received the medal ($200,000 to $300,000).

The medal belonging to Dr. Watson’s main partner in the discovery, Dr. Crick, sold posthumously last year for $2.27 million to Jack Wang, chief executive of a Chinese biotech company.

Christie’s said it believed that Dr. Watson’s would be the first-ever sale of a Nobel medal by a living prize winner.

Responding to questions by email on Wednesday, Dr. Watson, 86, expressed regret for his 2007 remarks, saying: “I can’t undo that. I do wish that I had been more careful in speaking about things I’m not expert in.”

In the 2007 interview, in The Sunday Times of London Magazine, he told a former protégée, Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, that he felt gloomy about Africa because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.”

He also said that “people who have to deal with black employees” found that everyone was not equal.

Last week, he told The Financial Times that the interview had turned him into an “unperson.”

He added that he was selling his medal because he needed the money, having been ousted from boards of companies. And somewhat puckishly, he admitted to a desire to buy a painting by David Hockney.

On Wednesday, Dr. Watson said that most of the money would go to support institutions that had nurtured him, like the University of Chicago, which he entered as a 15-year-old undergraduate; Indiana University, where he received his Ph.D.; Cambridge, where he worked with Dr. Crick; and the Cold Spring Harbor Lab. “The sale is to support and empower scientific discovery,” he said.

As for the Hockney, he had that in mind as a gift to the lab, which, he noted, also needs a gymnasium.

While he will always cherish the Nobel, he said, his gold medal has been hidden away in a safe deposit box for 52 years. A replica, also given by the Nobel committee, “has a place of honor in my home.”

Dr. Watson said he might keep a small amount of the proceeds from the sale for himself and his family, after he fulfilled his philanthropic goals.

He is far from destitute. He is still chancellor emeritus at Cold Spring Harbor, where he participates in conferences and is also active in fund-raising and development, a spokeswoman said. He lives in a house provided by the organization. He earned a base pay of $375,000 in 2012, and received $568,860 in total compensation and benefits that year, according to the laboratory’s most recent available tax filings.

In his 1968 memoir, Dr. Watson confessed that a rival involved in DNA research once archly called him “Honest Jim,” and that there were many instances of his being indiscreet.

He called DNA “the Rosetta Stone for unraveling the true secret of life,” and the key to how genes determined everything from hair and eye color to “most likely our comparative intelligence, and maybe even our potential to amuse others.”

In her 2007 article, Ms. Hunt-Grubbe also recalled Dr. Watson’s saying that a woman who wanted grandchildren should be able to abort a homosexual child if that trait could be detected prenatally.

Many readers of “The Double Helix” faulted him for not adequately recognizing the work of a female scientist, Rosalind Franklin, in the 1953 discovery of the DNA structure. It is not clear whether Dr. Franklin, who died in 1958 of ovarian cancer at age 37, might have been included in the prize if she had lived — the Nobel is not awarded posthumously, nor is it split more than three ways.

Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, said on Wednesday that he hoped Dr. Watson’s tremendous accomplishments — which continued long after his discovery of the double helix when he was just 24 — would not be eclipsed by such controversies.

Dr. Watson helped establish the Human Genome Project with the National Institutes of Health, and insisted on setting aside a portion of the funding to consider the ethical issues of genetic science.

In 1986, he wrote an influential textbook on the molecular biology of the gene. “The Double Helix” was both a best-seller and part of the Library of Congress 2012 exhibit “Books That Shaped America,” which included titles such as Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Frederick Douglass’s first autobiography.

Dr. Watson suggested the proceeds from the auction would allow him, if not to do penance, then to make up for lost time.

“It is wonderful to be in a position to do great things, to make things happen,” he said in the email. “To have that, and then not, is disheartening. I think I could have been far more useful in this time.”

 

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