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Childhood and school


My mother and her parents
James Watson Scientist
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During the... some time pretty soon after the war started, she took a full-time job in the Loop working for the Red Cross, and that certainly helped us financially. And then my grandmother was living with us and so when we... she was always home, so I, you know... I don't think there was ever a babysitter in our house, it was my grandmother.

[Q] So she helped look after you kids and...

And she, my mother, had had while in high school rheumatic fever. I think that it was a staph or a strep infection, and left her with severely damaged heart valves and so she could never go on long walks and just walking up stairs tired her. And she used that and it was probably about, I think... is that she didn't have the energy to walk to church, so she didn't go to church on Sunday, except maybe on Christmas Eve and Easter, but my grandmother would always go to church.

[Q] So most of your childhood your mother was disabled in this way?

Yes, so she did, you know, have a job and afterwards, after the war got out, after I had left the University of Chicago, she got a job in the Admissions Office and used to interview prospective students. My mother had gone for two years to the University of Chicago after finishing high school, and the money must have come from her mother, though she, I'm sure, would have worked. And my grandmother had some, I remember, Argentine bonds, which went belly-up during the Depression and, you know, at some time I learnt that my grandmother had come to Chicago from the town of Michigan City where there was the... her parents had a farm about six miles out, the Gleason's. And basically, she was the kept woman of Michigan City's wealthiest family, where she had started probably as a 10-year-old servant working for Mrs Barker and then Mr Barker moved with her to Chicago. So, I think, when he died, he must have left her some money, and then she married a Lauchlin Mitchell, a Scottish tailor, who didn't know of my grandmother's past, but at some stage discovered it and probably discovered that she had lied about her age. So my mother, grandmother was... had, you know... there was only one child and there was my mother, my grandmother, I think, was born in '61 and my mother was born in '99.

We... and I don't know what year my grandparents married. It was some time there was... we had a pastel painting of my grandfather which was exhibited at the Columbians World Fair which was in 1993, it was one year late, after the 400th anniversary... no, 300th it would have been 18 and 40, 400th anniversary of Columbus's first visit to the Americas. So there was a pastel, which I was told the artist got a suit and my grandfather had a painting of him. So, he was a successful tailor, until ready-made suits came in... in the early 20th century, then his business went down. And he died on... it was either Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve in the Palmer House Hotel, supposedly by a runaway horse. So... which later in my life led me to wonder whether... you know, whether it was my grandfather or the horse who was drunk? In those days, people really drank, you know, it was a tough life. I think, we don't realize how tough it was around 1900.

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: mother, rheumatic fever, disability, grandmother, marriage, drinking

Duration: 5 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2008 and October 2009

Date story went live: 18 June 2010