Watson resigns amid race controversy

By Mischa Fierer

Prominent geneticist and U of C graduate James Dewey Watson (S.B. ’47) has retired from his post as chancellor of Long Island’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) amid widespread criticism of his recent remarks on race.

CSHL hired Watson as director in 1968, where he served as president until 2003. The center suspended him earlier this month after he made comments about how blacks are not as intelligent as whites, creating a furious uproar in Britain that quickly spread around the world, according to Bloomberg News.

In a statement Thursday to The New York Times, Watson noted that having worked at the lab for 43 years, he was “overdue” to transfer leadership of the center. He said despite being close to 80 years old, the “circumstances” of the transfer were “not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired.”

In an October 14 profile, the London Times quoted Watson explaining his belief that a large intelligence gap between blacks and whites accounted for many problems in Africa. In an October 18 statement, Watson rejected this idea, noting that there is no scientific basis for such a belief. He did not say that he had been misquoted.

In an announcement Thursday, Eduardo Mestre, chairman of the Board of CSHL, did not mention the current racism controversy, focusing rather on Watson’s scientific achievements. “The Board respects his decision to retire at this point in his career,” Mestre said, leaving open the question of whether by “point” he referred to Watson’s advanced age or Watson’s pariah status after the racist comments.

Dr. Bruce Stillman, president of CSHL, said that although the lab “has been at the forefront of research ever since its founding in 1890,” Watson contributed by creating a “research environment that is unparalleled in the world of science,” which drew many scientists, including Stillman himself, to the lab.

To those who took offense to his comments, it appears that Watson has this time stepped over the line and that his career will be seriously damaged.

To associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology Herbert Freidmann, however, Watson’s scientific legacy will “overshadow his regrettable views, late in life, on matters of race and intelligence.”