James Watson: Rosalind Franklin Couldn’t Deal With People

James Watson is an American molecular biologist best known for his discovery of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. He was born in Chicago in 1928 and attended the University of Chicago for his undergraduate degree in zoology. While pursuing his Ph.D at Indiana University, Watson became interested in molecular biology, which led him to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory for postdoctoral research. There he met Crick, the two recognized a common interest in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson, Crick, and another researcher Maurice Wilkins would later share the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in this field.

In 1956, Watson became a junior member of Harvard University's Biological Laboratories, where he quickly advanced to the position of full professor. Then in 1968 he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) on Long Island, New York, where he shifted his research emphasis to the study of cancer. Between 1988 and 1992, Watson was also associated with the National Institutes of Health, spearheading the Human Genome Project. In 2007 he became the second person, after molecular biologist Craig Venter, to have his entire genome sequenced. Watson remained involved with CSHL, as president and later as chancellor, until 2007, when he retired following a controversy over comments he made claiming blacks are less intelligent than whites.

Watson has written many books, including the seminal textbook "The Molecular Biology of the Gene" (1965), his bestseller "The Double Helix" (1968) about his discovery of the DNA structure, and his memoir "Avoid Boring People" (2007).

  • Transcript


Question: What was Rosalind Franklin’s role in the discovery of DNA?

James Watson: She provided the... some crucial pieces of information.  Her great handicap, which I would now say we would use the term Asperger’s, she didn’t know how to deal with other people; didn’t know how to ask for help. And, if anything, probably paranoid about people stealing her data.  And if she’d come out to Cambridge and shown her data to Crick, she... Crick would have told her how to solve her problem.  She had a clue, but she didn’t know how to interpret it, and Francis would have immediately have told her what it was because his own work in Cambridge, just by accident, had let him deal with that problem.  So he could have told her, and she had gone back to London and he would have said, "You know, there are two chains and she said the phosphoruses were on the outside then they would have to be held together by the bases.  And once you say that, you are very close to the structure. 

So... I don’t think her name deserved to be on the paper, I mean, she really fought bitterly saying it was the helix, and didn’t collaborate.  And because of her... her failure to interact effectively, it was hard to know how bright she was, and why she was so strongly against it being a helix.  I don’t know.  You know, afterwards, I would never ask her those questions, we were not... afterwards we weren’t at all unpleasant to each other, we liked to talk to each other. I mean we could you know, talk to each other.  But I never asked her if she wanted to spontaneously say something, but she never did.

Recorded on September 28, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman