Monday, October 22, 2007

James Watson: A Nobel Prize-Winner -- An Ignoble Man

James Watson's grotesque gaffe last week provides an opportunity to revisit his inexcusable treatment of Rosalind Franklin in the early 1950's in the process of his taking credit, with Francis Crick, for the discovery of the helical structure of DNA. Fifty years and more have passed, but Watson's character has maintained its regrettably low level.

As reported by the N.Y. Times last week, Watson was quoted in the Times of London as saying:

"While there are many people of color who are very talented, I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa. All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” (There was more, but this gives you the general idea -- petty racism wrapped in puerile condescension.)

A predictably perfect storm thereupon broke over poor Jim's head, his speaking engagements in England were canceled, he was suspended from his job as Chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and he fled home to the U.S. in disgrace.

Upon returning home, he issued a "retraction/apology":

“I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.” (Well said, Jim, but Flip Wilson said it better -- "The devil made me do it!" You could learn something from such "people of color," however less intelligent they may be. )

This brings me back to Watson's ruinous treatment of a wonderful woman and surpassingly brilliant scientist -- Rosalind Franklin.

In the early 50's Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge, Linus Pauling at Cal Tech and Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins at Kings College in London were all racing to discover the structure of DNA. Watson and Crick were biologists, but approached the problem primarily as molecular model builders. Franklin and Wilkins were x-ray crystallographers. Pauling was, of course, the greatest chemist of his day.

Rosalind was the leading crystallographer of her time and preferred to work alone in her laboratory, intensely focused on producing through long x-ray exposures the most revealing and beautiful images of the DNA molecule. Her most famous image was Photo 51:

Although Rosalind was not herself, so it seems, convinced at the time she produced this photo that the structure was helical, her images nevertheless spoke for themselves. Wilkins was nominally her collaborator at Kings College, but was in fact subordinate to her, in rank and ability.

Wilkins had meanwhile developed a friendly relationship with Watson and Crick, who were making progress with their clever model building, but their approach was top-down, so they had no experimental data to guide them through to a final understanding of the structure of DNA.

Then, one fateful day in London, while Rosalind was absent from her laboratory, Wilkins, without Rosalind's knowledge or consent, showed Watson the print of Photo 51. Watson immediately understood that it was the definitive evidence he needed to show that DNA was helical: "The instant I saw the picture my mouth fell open and my pulse began to race." (From Watson's best-seller, The Double Helix.) In short order, Watson and Crick completed their model and published their epochal short paper "A Structure for Deoxyribonucleic Acid" in Nature. Here is their limp-wristed acknowledgement of the key contribution that Rosalind Franklin's work, and Photo 51 in particular, made to their final result:

"We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M.H.F. Wilkins, Dr. R.E. Franklin and their co-workers at King's College, London."

[Let me restate this as it should have been phrased: "We would not have reached our result but for our unauthorized viewing of an x-ray image produced by Rosalind Franklin, shown to us surreptitiously by Maurice Wilkins, which showed, as we were ourselves unable to show, the helical structure of DNA. We would be happy to give her full credit for her contribution but for the fact that we prefer to take the credit ourselves, having clearly in mind that one day this discovery will certainly earn a Nobel prize."]

This was in 1953. Rosalind Franklin died of ovarian cancer (thought by many to have resulted from her long hours of unprotected exposure to x-ray radiation in her laboratory -- cf., Marie Curie and Richard Feynman) in 1958. Watson and Crick, joined somewhat undeservedly by Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

Sad enough that Watson leveraged his own fame on the work of Rosalind Franklin without due credit, but worse that he gratuitously disparaged her appearance in The Double Helix:

"Momentarily I wondered how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair...Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in her clothes...There was never lipstick to contract with her straight black hair...."

Utter drivel, of course. No surprise that Harvard refused to publish the book (for this, among other good reasons). Any man with an eye for women can recognize here Watson's underlying attraction to Rosalind and his wounded vanity that she treated him as an unimportant toad. Was she so unattractive? I don't think so.

The story has an ironic if not a happy end. Watson's reputation has spiralled (pardon the pun) steadily downward over the years, reaching its nadir last week with his pathetic white supremacist remarks in England. Rosy's repute and estimation in the eyes of the public in general and the scientific community in particular has on the other hand risen steadily. (It is a beautiful analogue of the DNA helix itself -- one coil spirals downward and the other spirals upward.) As a scientist, she is now recognized as one of the greatest contributors to one of the most important scientific achievements in the history of mankind. As a woman, she is recognized as one of the most remarkable in a long line of brilliant women (Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Cecilia Payne and Jocelyn Bell, to name just four) who have achieved greatness in science notwithstanding the oppression, opposition and obstruction of the many swinish alpha males with whom they were surrounded. See, for example, the Nova website, The Secret of Photo 51 , the excellent biography by Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin -- The Dark Lady of DNA, and the more recent article, "Rosalind Franklin and the Double Helix," by Lynn Elkin in Physics Today (Prof. Elkin, to my delight, chose the same two photos as did I to depict Rosalind).

Coda: The book Watson was in England to promote is or was called, Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science. I assume it will now be re-titled: Avoid Boorish People and Other Lessons the Author Never Learned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said. Things haven’t changed much since, in today’s ivory towers of science. Call it maintenance of the status quo, or the rule of discreditation. As history seems to repeat itself, sadly, there is an ever-repeating string of similar examples, including major technology innovations, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
No surprise, at the leading scientific conferences in this field, you will find little mention of Raymond Damadian, in addition to Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield.
The phenomenon itself resides deep within the dark side of human behavior. It should be called the “Platzhirsch Syndrom” to use a German term. Related to the transition of science into commercial sector, nobody could say it better than Craig Venter, here in an interview a few years ago:
“… But the notion I've seen over and over again was the founding scientist always gets killed off. I call it the "praying mantis syndrome" of biotechnology…