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Running a lab at Harvard


Collaboration and competition
James Watson Scientist
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I think Sydney and I were competing. Sydney was regarded as my successor as the geneticist in the LMB which was largely physicists and chemists, and I left at the end of the summer of '56, in the fall of '56, in January of '57 Sydney arrived, and Sydney did extraordinarily well in Cambridge and was much cleverer than I ever was in Cambridge, and worked with Francis for 20 years, you know, in the same room, facing each other, and I did it for three years. And I think that was probably all either of us could take, though Francis was probably never challenged by me but I think I was challenged that he was so clearly a deeper mind than I was and, well, more serious and when, you know, at a time of after the DNA structure, Francis did all the talking. I think most people probably thought Francis deserved all the credit. You know, it was Francis, so how was I to go out in the world?

Bragg wrote me a letter, nice letter, saying he thought Crick had got too much credit and I should write up my side of the story. Now, I'd just finished The Double Helix and or almost finished it, so I... with Bragg and sort of that led to me asking Bragg to write the foreword to it. When he read it he saw my opening descriptions were not at all what he want, how he saw himself and... but his wife prevailed and he wrote a very, very good foreword for my book. But... so Bragg, you know, did see that it was very Crick wouldn't have found it without me and of course I knew I didn't, but I still had to be someplace where Francis wasn't and try and do major science. I guess that was it. My lab certainly did major science. Looking back at it, it only happened because I sort of followed the rule of always trying to get... surround myself by people that I find much brighter than myself and can do things quicker than I, or I can't even do them. So I was lucky at Harvard after messenger RNA was discovered, to be joined by the young physicist, theoretical physicist, Wally Gilbert, and we ran a joint lab effectively from 1961 to '76, so 15 years.

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: The Double Helix, Sydney Brenner, Lawrence Bragg, Francis Crick, Wally Gilbert

Duration: 3 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010