DNA pioneer James Watson, who helped discover the double helix after stealing research from Rosalind Franklin, will have his 23-carat gold Nobel medal returned to him by the Russian oligarch who bought it.
Watson shared the 1962 Nobel Prize with Francis Crick, a colleague of his at the Cavendish Laboratory, in Cambridge, England, for uncovering the double helix structure of DNA. He also shared the prize with Maurice Wilkin, a rival researcher from Kings College London and a collaborator of Franklin's, though not with Franklin; she died four years before the awards.
"Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place."Watson went out of his way to paint her as an unsympathetic character in his 1968 book The Double Helix, even though he would not have made the double-helix observation without a photograph stolen from her work. Franklin, who Watson refers to as Rosy, wouldn't be "totally uninteresting," he wrote in The Double Helix, if she "took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair," practically predicting She's All That. "So it was quite easy to imagine her the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men," he wrote. "Clearly Rosy had to go or be put in her place." This was, remember, the woman whose work he stole.
Last week, Watson’s Nobel medal went up for auction at Christie’s in New York, where it was sold by telephone auction for $4.75 million to Alisher Usmanov, owner of the English football club Arsenal and the richest man in Russia, according to The Independent. Watson got $4.1 million from the auction. When the scientist was putting his medal up for sale, he said he wanted to reenter public life, after a series of racist 2007 comments about the intelligence of Africans. He told The Times of London he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" since "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 went on to tell the paper that though people want to believe everyone is born with an equal playing field of intelligence, those "who have to deal with black employees find this not true."
Watson plans to use the money to buy a paintingt wasn't Watson's first foray into scientific racism — his career was full of similar incidents, including endorsing the abortion of gay fetuses and suggesting that darker-skinned people have higher sex drives. But this time the general public took notice. Watson subsequently announced his retirement from his position as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and from the institution's board. And other institutions he was affiliated with no longer wanted to do business with him.
"Because I was an ‘unperson’ I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income apart from my academic income," Watson told The Financial Times in a November interview before the Christie's sale. Since the incident, he's delivered no public lectures, he said.
Watson said he planned to use the money to buy a painting by David Hockney. He also made some noises about donating some of the money to academic institutions, like the University of Chicago.
the caligula of biologyScience has always had a problem with hero-worship; make a big enough discovery, and a lot of people will make excuses every time you're an asshole. Watson was 25 when he made his breakthrough, and seems not to have grown up much since then. Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson has referred to him as "the Caligula of biology." Writes Wilson, "He was given license to say anything that came to his mind and expect to be taken seriously. And unfortunately, he did so, with a casual and brutal offhandedness."
The Russian billionaire Usmanov seems to have bought into the heroic narrative, telling The Independent that he values Watson's contribution to cancer research, the disease that killed Usmanov's father. The mogul will give Watson the money and return the medal.
"In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable," Usmanov told The Independent. "James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind, and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him."
I suspect Rosalind Franklin and the various groups Watson has maligned over the years would beg to differ. Watson's bad behavior has been excused and rewarded for decades now. Usmanov is just the latest of his enablers.