James Watson and Francis Crick did not discover DNA. “Nuclein,” as DNA was initially called, was discovered in 1869 by a Swiss chemist named Friedrich Miescher. And they did not discover that DNA was what genes were made of; that was Oswald Avery and his colleagues MacLeod and McCarty at Rockefeller University.
Watson and Crick discovered that DNA exists in the form of a three-dimensional double-helix. That discovery is probably no more important than many others. I’d argue that the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment tops Watson and Crick. But Watson and Crick’s work is far more memorable, probably because it’s possible to draw a picture of it–which can’t be done with the others.
The double helix has become one of the most famous scientific images of all time–indeed, one of the most famous images of any kind. Not many molecules are honored by being chosen as a battle rapper’s stage name.
Despite the acclaim for the double helix, admiration for Watson has plummeted in recent years. It’s now more accurate to say that he’s become infamous–even reviled. (Crick died in 2004.) And deservedly so. In a blistering takedown at Slate, science and health editor Laura Helmuth recaps some of the worst of Watson’s sexist and racist comments, and blasts him for claiming scientific expertise far beyond the work that won him his Nobel. Her piece was prompted by the announcement that he is going to auction off his Nobel Prize, because, he says, “he has become an ‘unperson,’ and ‘no one really wants to admit I exist.’”
Selling the medal is Watson’s way of sticking his tongue out at the scientific establishment, which has largely shunned him since 2007. Watson had been making racist and sexist remarks throughout his career, but he really outdid himself seven years ago when he told the Sunday Times that 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…”
Watson had a major insight 61 years ago about the physical structure of DNA…But he knows fuck all about history, human evolution, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any rigorous study of intelligence or race.
And sexism? “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective,” Watson said. It’s painful just to re-type that.
Even his scientific predictions have been off. As Helmuth notes, he’s famous among science writers for his claim in The New York Times in 1998 that research by Judah Folkman in Boston would “cure cancer in two years.” In the same article, by Gina Kolata, Jerome Groopman of Harvard cautioned that “a sober scientist waits for the data.” (So does a sober reporter, but that’s another story.)
On the one hand, we shouldn’t care about Watson. Anyone who’s covered him or paid attention over the past few decades knows that it’s best to ignore him. But those who haven’t paid attention probably still take his pronouncements as some kind of Nobel-laureate gospel–which is especially dangerous now. Recent protests sparked by the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri “are a reminder that racist ignorance is pervasive and dangerous,” Helmuth concludes, “and that Jim Watson’s bid for attention isn’t just about him tarnishing his own legacy.”