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Switching to nucleic acid chemistry and moving to Copenhagen


My PhD period with the phage group
James Watson Scientist
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[Q] How would you summarize your PhD period? I mean, you get embedded in the phage group, which was the key?

Yeah, I got embedded in it. Bright people, for the most part, doing experiments was for... and not very important, and with a false distain for chemistry, some of it was the pecking order, there was... chemists weren't bright, except for the quantum chemists, but you know, the ordinary chemists who did the analytical chemistry or something, was not an intellectual. And so... they wanted the... somehow, the answer to fall out of the theory, instead of, you know, a genetic cross would tell you the essence of the gene, not X-ray structure methods. Luria, for some reason, disliked chemists, liked physicists. Luria had been in Fermi's lab in Rome, either in the late... around Christmas '36, or Christmas of '37, and hero-worshipped those people. So, and then trying to determine the size of the gene through target theory, that is, if every X-ray in activation killed, then you knew the size of the genetic components, or if any... but it was just the size of the phage, they never said protein and nucleic acid, so it was all pretty... they weren't thinking in terms of the molecules, they were just thinking of the physicist's cube or a sphere or a cylindrical body.

[Q] There's Delbrück as well, is there?

Yes, and Delbrück only later in life began to appreciate, in the '70s, you know, RNA preliminaries transcription, so that was a very late... and Gunther Stent who'd been trained as a physical chemist, you know, if there wasn't an equation involved with it, it was unimportant. You know, you could be dumb and do the work, whereas everyone wanted to think they were right by doing things which required you to be bright.

[Q] So, where did you get to chemistry during this period, that nucleic acid in chemistry, as...

I took... among the good people recruited to Indiana was Felix Horowitz, who was a protein chemist who'd been at Charles University, and then... who had fled and was a professor in Turkey during the war, and had worried whether antibodies were univalent or bivalent. Yeah, Pauling was right, and for some reason Horowitz was wrong. But his major interest was hemoglobin, and he was actually related to Max Perutz, I think, I don't think to Max's wife, and so I'm sure he was the one, I remember him talking about Sanger and n group methods, so he was very up-to-date on you know, so I took this course in the Fall, probably of '48, from Felix. And I remember I had to write a term paper and my term paper was on lysozyme and one other protein. It was small, you know, it was... Francis was trying to crystallize it, so, about that time, in Cambridge, then afterwards.

So, I'm sure he talked about Ashbury, he, you know, talked about Bernal, he talked about Ashbury, so I... that was my introduction to it. And it fitted into sort of, you know, my... liking real things. And my grades in chemistry... I got A's at Chicago or so, it wasn't that I didn't like chemistry, it was just chemistry was, you know, didn't seem to bear any connection at all, to what really interested me.

[Q] But when you were doing the irradiation experiments, were you thinking nucleic acids all the time?


[Q] You were not?

No. All I know is that in my senior year, I mean, my last year at Chicago, I wanted to go on and study DNA. Yeah, because... what I mean, Kosloff at Chicago, you know, we were labeling phage with p32 and trying to see if the p32 ended up in the progeny. So, I remember hearing that experiment. They very importantly... at Indiana, was Leo Szilard having got a little money from the Rockefeller Foundation to hold Mid-Western phage meetings, and there would have been a lot of them, but you know, probably ended up with just one in the Fall and one in the Spring, and we met in St Louis once. We met in... it's that I didn't know Szilard and... were then, in an abandoned synagogue just south of the University of Chicago, that's where their lab was.

And it was all Szilard wanting to meet the people who'd done the experiments and talk to them. So it was all arranged for Leo. And I had a, sort of, a hero-worship of him from when I read the Smythe's Report, when they, in '45, when the bomb... he was a Princeton professor who had been commissioned to write the history of the bomb project when it was on. And so, of course, Leo was, and Fermi were, and that he had come into biology really made it much more important, because he was a great man. Whereas Delbrück would say, well, you know, he wasn't a very good physicist. He was edging to telling the truth, actually. Delbrück had a thing about... Bohr wouldn't have liked Delbrück if he hadn't been pretty bright, I think, as a physicist, and there was Delbrück's... there was a couple things, you know, his name actually got attached to something. And he had spent a year with... oh, all the famous English physicists. He became the Cavendish professor... He went to Bristol. Max was in Bristol for a year as a post-doc, actually. So, yeah, we would be the new, you know, in this sense, Cold Spring Harbor or Caltech were, really, the new Copenhagen and Gottingens.

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.

Listeners: Martin Raff Walter Gratzer

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



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

Tags: Salvador Luria, Enrico Fermi, Max Delbrück, Gunther Stent, Felix Horowitz, Max Perutz, Leo Szilard, Niels Bohr

Duration: 9 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010