The acclaimed Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Watson will be forever remembered as one of the ‘fathers of DNA’. But also as something much worse.
In a resurfaced controversy that further dims the shine of one of the 20th century’s most esteemed scientists, Watson – awarded the Nobel in 1962 for his role in the discovery of DNA’s ‘double helix’ molecular structure – has been stripped of academic titles after repeating offensive racist views that began to shred his reputation over a decade ago.
After new racist comments by Watson surfaced in the recent PBS documentary American Masters: Decoding Watson, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) – the pioneering research lab Watson led for decades – had finally had enough.
“Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions,” CSHL said in statement.
“Dr. Watson’s statements are reprehensible, unsupported by science, and in no way represent the views of CSHL… The Laboratory condemns the misuse of science to justify prejudice.”
In the new documentary, Watson states: “There’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on IQ tests. I would say the difference is, it’s genetic.”
It’s not the first time Watson has come under fire for stating these kinds of beliefs.
In 2007, Watson created a furore after he was quoted as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of 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”.
In the same article by The Times, Watson acknowledged such views were a “hot potato”, but said that while he hoped that everyone was equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
Watson later apologised for the comments, but the damage was done.
CSHL relieved him of all remaining administrative duties at the lab, leaving him only as an honorary figurehead in respect of his previous contributions to science. Now, those last accolades are also gone.
“In response to his most recent statements, which effectively reverse the written apology and retraction Dr. Watson made in 2007, the Laboratory has taken additional steps, including revoking his honorary titles of Chancellor Emeritus, Oliver R. Grace Professor Emeritus, and Honorary Trustee,” the CSHL statement reads.
It’s an indisputably inglorious end for one of the most glorious career arcs in 20th century science.
While the lesser-known story of Rosalind Franklin’s unrecognised contributions to Watson and Francis Crick’s famous DNA research are a telling reminder of the struggles women still face to be recognised in science, nobody denies the landmark contributions Watson himself made.
But, sadly, these famous accomplishments – which helped usher in a whole new era of knowledge in molecular biology and genetics – will now forever be linked with the offensive opinions of an old man in decline.
And an old man who, some say, should not be asked such questions any more.
“It is not news when a ninety-year-old man who has lost cognitive inhibition, and has drifted that way for decades as he aged, speaks from his present mind,” CSHL Michael Wigler told The New York Times.
“It is not a moment for reflection. It is merely a peek into a corner of this nation’s subconscious, and a strong whiff of its not-well-shrouded past secrets.”
The buyer actually returned the Prize to Watson as a gesture of respect – but as time and the world moves on, the ageing scientist may find himself running out of such good will.
As for what we can ultimately make of the scientist’s legacy, given the ugly shadow that now hangs over his earlier wins, helpful advice may come from a 2014 op-ed in The Guardian written about Watson.
“Celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it,” geneticist Adam Rutherford wrote.
“And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too. It turns out that just like DNA, people are messy, complex and sometimes full of hideous errors.”