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Biological weapons and special projects


Becoming a White House advisor (Fall 1961)
James Watson Scientist
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Once Kennedy became president, wanted to move in when Kisty asked me would I be – George Kistiakowsky, who was... he had been the head of the Scientific Advisory Committee under Eisenhower and was still on the committee about six months after Kennedy became President  said would I want to work with biological weapons? They wanted someone. Of course I said yes because, you know, it might let me, in a quiet way, influence policy. I think everyone wanted to go to Washington, hoped that the Government would act more effectively and sensibly and, you know, in this case is don't use this sort of weapon. So I've written about it in Avoid Boring People. And it was fun having, you know... I always said a White House pass to get in and...

[Q] Did you have an influence?

No. Well, yes, not in ways that I consider probably I made a mistake and partially both Paul Doty and I got put on the committee to investigate Rachel Carson. That's the way it was almost phrased. When Silent Spring was written, the President apparently... well, certainly Jerry Wiesner, Science Advisor, wrote the... read the sort of advance material which appeared in The New Yorker, and somehow Jerry thought that, you know, if there really was going to... all the songbirds were going to be killed, this was worth discussing and were the pesticides in the food chain, could they harm human beings as well as birds? And so I was put on this committee and most of them who were there sort of took the view, yes, we had a problem and there would have to be regulation.

And the Department of Agriculture fought it. Industry which was producing and making a lot of money from pesticides, they didn't want any regulations, but we came out and said there's enough evidence that the food chain may be threatened. And we didn't say what the regulation was but I think we urged that there be rules and, you know, DDT effectively became banned. And when I say, you know, now it wasn't clear that DDT has ever hurt one person and that, you know, it might  if it were used in Africa  it might be preventing, inside homes, a lot of malaria, so it was a one-sided approach. On the other hand we knew that the approach of the chemical industry, Monsanto and these large makers of it, was pretty vicious. You know, they tried to stop the report and but Kennedy insisted it came out so that was...

[Q] And did it have teeth in the sense that it would...?

Oh, it did finally, yes. I mean, the organic phosphates, the deodorants, the odorants, which clearly were more toxic to animals that DDT was, their use was severely curtailed.

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: Avoid Boring People, Silent Spring, The New Yorker, Department of Agriculture, Africa, George Kistiakowsky, Paul Doty, Rachel Carson, Jerry Wiesner

Duration: 4 minutes, 18 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010