I was born in Chicago in 1928. My father, then as he did all through his life until he retired, had a job with a correspondence school. These were schools which sent you lessons and then you prepared material and then sent it away to Chicago and you could get various business degrees or law degree. It was a business school and my father was, I think, called Collection Manager, he collected from the students, many of whom, I think, probably had difficulty paying for their schooling, because it was during the half of the depression. I was born in ’28 which is in April, I forget whether the crash was, I think, the big crash was ’29. And so my parents, after their marriage in 1925 lived in Hyde Park, a neighborhood nearest to Chicago. And then, I think, after my two-year younger sister was born in 1930, my mother’s mother was running out of money, so in 1933 they bought a tiny bungalow with two bedrooms and my grandmother moved in and occupied the second bedroom where my sister and I, she was then three and I was five, we had, sort of, bunk beds carved into the attic, so someone came in and a staircase was well, I’m sure there was a staircase to the attic, but for then not much money, you know, and sometimes I think back and, you know, was the whole thing just leaded with asbestos? It could very well have been because, you know, we were trying to insulate it and so on, but we it seems that both of us survived without our lungs.
But your father was an important influence on you, clearly.
My father was an influence in that he read books, so my first book, which was given to me at the age, I think, six but it could have been eight, was a book called Travelling with Birds, by the curator of birds at the Field Museum in Chicago. And I must have already expressed an interest in birds but my father had become an obsessive bird-watcher during high school and continued to do that when, in his one year at college, an overland s college. And then he had scarlet fever, I don’t think we ever heard the truth, I think he was slightly expelled and his mother put him oh, you know, his grades weren’t good, he was sent to work. And then he was probably saved by the First World War which he enlisted rapidly and went to France and then he would have come back in 1919 when he was 22 and soon after that the job at La Salle Extension University, and must have done well. I don’t know when his politics changed. I think, already, at the university he was becoming skeptical of God. When he was in, sort of, high school, he got a certificate for church attendance and, you know, the Episcopal Church in LaGrange. My father’s mother had some money which made her independent of her husband who was a stockbroker, and we know they had terrible arguments over money and he was, his brother worked he was called a plunger.
That is, he, he just, you know, bet on stocks, he would bet all his money and the stock would go up or down, you know, and so, I think, he was wiped out several times and his wife never gave him any money after a while. And, but at the end of the First World War they left LaGrange and, you know, went, at that time it was probably a big house, so today it would probably be called a small house. But my father never referred to servants living in the house; possibly they didn’t. They moved into an apartment in Hyde Park so my father’s younger brother Bill who was two years younger, could go to the University of Chicago and live at home. It was probably saving money. And so, and I forget where my father he could easily have lived, you know, we had an apartment big enough for, there were two younger brothers, Tom and Stanley, and I remember my grandmother being obesely fat, you know, probably over 300 pounds and my father’s brother Tom was very fat and his daughters were fat, so I somehow had the idea there was obesity in the Watsons.
American molecular biologist James Dewey Watson is probably best known for discovering the structure of DNA for which he was jointly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His long career has seen him teaching at Harvard and Caltech, and taking over the directorship of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. From 1988 to 1992, James Watson was head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health. His current research focuses on the study of cancer.
Title: Early life and my father’s background
Walter Gratzer is Emeritus Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at King's College London, and was for most of his research career a member of the scientific staff of the Medical Research Council. He is the author of several books on popular science. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard and has known Jim Watson since that time
Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.
Listen to Martin Raff
at Web of Stories
7 minutes, 9 seconds
Date story recorded:
November 2008 and October 2009
Date story went live:
18 June 2010