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My first meeting with Francis Crick


Going to Cambridge
James Watson Scientist
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I got to Cambridge because I must have got back to Copenhagen and written Luria that I'd seen this X-ray photo of DNA and it was a three-dimensional structure, and I wanted to change what I was doing. And then soon after Luria got my letter, he went to a small meeting at the University of Michigan, probably organized by Gordon Sutherland, who was an English spectroscopist, but interested in proteins, and he met John Kendrew and, you know, he learned that John was trying to work on three dimensional structure. He mentioned he had a former student who wanted to learn X-ray methods, and then Luria wrote me that Kendrew needed someone and I should... but Kendrew was now in the States, and I don't... I knew when I went to Cambridge in the middle of September of '51, that Kendrew wouldn't be there but Perutz would be there, and I'd have to... I don't quite... who told me that, but Perutz met me, knew I was coming, and after having Bragg talk to me, and I guess Kendrew had indicated that, you know, Luria had said I was very good, and therefore... And I think they liked the idea of someone coming to the lab whose interest had been phage. You know, it was the other sort of molecular biology.

[Q] But they knew you were coming to look at DNA?

No, Luria probably said... yeah, I was interested in DNA but I wanted to learn crystographic methods, because I must written, you know, I don't know any... anything, and you know, I don't know why I never... you know, I never wrote a letter to Wilkins saying I wanted to be with you, but I think it was just in... you know, I tried to talk to Wilkins, and... but he wasn't really interested in talking to me.

[Q] Had he been would you likely have gone to King's?

Yes, sure. Yeah, it'd have been a different history. I would have probably brought Maurice and Rosalind together, despite what the...

[Q] Where they could have ripped you to pieces between them.

Yeah, so you know, it could have been the three of our names, you know, if I had gone there.

[Q] So, what... what's interesting to me is: you weren't really a post-doc in Copenhagen or in Cambridge. What were you? Was that just a different time?

No, it was a different time, there weren't post-docs, there were people who were finishing their PhD, who would go to some place, but they were treated as...

[Q] So you were independent?

Independent, except you could say that, you know, various people went, quote, as post-docs, and worked with John Kendrew, and certainly were crucial to his finding the myoglobin structure, and several of them went back, so they went and took on someone else's problem, whereas I didn't take on someone else's problem, but worked on my own. I would have taken on someone, say, if it had been what interested me, but there wasn't, but the concept of... the post-doc was... originally you went... you wanted to change your field, so you went to a new lab, and you were an apprentice because you were new to the subject, and then, yeah... now, you know, in a few places, and we started and we were... we, Cold Spring Harbor fellows, they're very bright people and finished their PhD, and when we... they come to Cold Stream Harbor to work on their own thing. You know, maybe in someone's lab, but it has to be their name on the papers, not the people providing space for them. And I think that is certainly the best way. We brought Carol Greider to Cold Spring Harbor; she had discovered telomerase in Elizabeth Blackburn's lab. And then, you know, she did a famous experiment on telomerase decreasing, you know, the size of the telomeristic... so I think some places are trying to reinvent it, that bright students are better when you call them independent. You get more of them.

[Q] So, Luria didn't put his name on your papers?


[Q] So... and you then went on to do that, so that was clearly a role model thing.

Yes, yes.

[Q] How does he make... how did he get grants if he didn't put his name on people's papers?

Oh, you just listed, when I was at Harvard, Wally and I would list the PhD, the other papers that came out of the lab, and it was so clearly... and the papers would all thank me for, you know...

[Q] So Luria did this with many of his students and post-docs afterwards?

Probably, I don't know, his... he had two good students after me, Bob DeMars went to Wisconsin, never became famous, but was always better than his reputation. And George Streisinger who sort of invented the zebra fish, who had a... had first decided he wanted to go into plant viruses, and that didn't work. I forget what George's PhD was like, they had to go... they came to Indiana but then went with Luria to, and finished at Illinois. I forget, but surely at that stage, there was the tradition that post-docs would be treated as equals, and not... you know, everyone was better off if they just thanked someone for giving them space and research-free agents and reading their paper and... but science seemed to move faster in those days. You just wrote your paper and showed it to someone, and all papers were published in those days, there was no problem with getting published. You didn't have to go through the agony of, you know, three revisions for a cell, or something like this.

And you know, people still ask me, you know, who refereed your DNA paper? I said, no, if Bragg gave something to the editor of Nature, it would be published. That was sufficient. You wouldn't send it to someone else. Who was going to second guess Bragg? And we could move a little faster if we adopted that, but then people would say it's favoritism, but favoritism works if you... you know, I think the standard was... is high, on the whole in 1953, as it is today.

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: Walter Gratzer Martin Raff

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



Tags: Nature, Cambridge University, Cold Spring Harbor, Gordon Sutherland, Salvador Luria, John Kendrew, Carol Greider, Bob DeMars, George Streisinger, Lawrence Bragg

Duration: 9 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010