Fifty-six years after he graduated from the University at the age of 19, and 51 years after he made the scientific discovery that changed the face of modern biology, James Watson, who in 1953 uncovered the structure of DNA, returned to his alma mater to discuss his humble beginnings in Chicago.
In conjunction with an exhibit in his honor that will open in the lobby of Crerar Library on January 22, Watson detailed how his adolescence and early adulthood shaped his academic career to a packed auditorium in the BSLC on Monday.
Watson was born in 1928 to parents who lived in Hyde Park. When he was young, his father, an avid ornithologist, used to take him bird watching. This, said Watson, was what sparked his interest in scientific research.
“My first writing in life was writing up bird trips,” said Watson. “It helps to care about what you’re writing about. My life was initially just wanting to see rare birds.”
Watson said he was determined to become a naturalist, and had even become a nature counselor in a summer camp during high school. But in 1946, Watson chanced upon physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? in a Chicago public library, and his father, a Darwinist, encouraged him to study evolution.
Watson graduated high school early and enrolled at the University in 1943, a decision he said he does not regret. “Chicago has made a pretty serious person of me,” Watson said. “Chicago, for better or worse, was tough and it was never wrong to be unpleasant. It was always better to say what you thought than to just go along to get along,” he said.
This philosophy, Watson said, dictated his later academic success. “One of my rules is that hypocrisy in search of self-acceptance erodes your self-respect,” he said. “You need to seek out bright instead of popular friends.”
Watson said the University’s demanding environment taught him self-respect, even though his teachers would often belittle his intelligence. “My senior year, I felt maybe I wasn’t stupid. But the entire point of your Chicago education is to make you feel stupid. And, in retrospect, it was a very good thing, because you have to prove to yourself you’re smart,” he said.
Watson graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana with a Ph.D. in biology and then traveled to Cambridge University in England, where, with partner Francis Crick, he cracked the DNA code in 1953. Using x-ray crystal diffraction, Watson and Crick were able to deduce that the amino acids that make up DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, are linked together in a double helix formation.
Nine years later, Watson won the Nobel Prize in medicine and later accepted faculty positions at Caltech and Harvard. Although he has been accused of letting these accomplishments inflate his ego, Watson said that a little bit of arrogance does not hurt anyone, especially when young.
“When you’re in your twenties, you should be totally devoted to yourself and no one else because you can’t stay that way for long. Don’t worry about the poor, don’t worry about the environment. You’ve got to be slightly obsessed, and it will make other people uncomfortable around you,” he said.
“Expect intellectual hotshots to have arrogant reputations, but it shouldn’t put you off them. If a young person isn’t arrogant, something’s wrong,” he added.
Watson has also been the victim of recent criticism surrounding the treatment of his colleague Rosalind Franklin in his book The Double Helix. Recent scholars have alleged that Franklin was the main inspiration behind the discovery of the DNA structure, and that Watson snubbed her in his book.
When asked at the lecture about his views on women in the face of the recent allegations, Watson responded flippantly. “My problem is I like them too much,” he said.
Watson said that if Franklin had merely sought out his or Crick’s help on some key questions in solving the structure, she could have hit on it before they did. “If she had just talked for an hour to Francis, he would have told her and she would have solved the structure,” he said.
Although his discovery greatly increased scientific knowledge, there are still many more frontiers to explore, Watson explained. “The next great step science should take is to discover how information is stored in the brain. But this isn’t a question that’s going to be answered soon.”