December 2, 2014

For sale: Nobel Prize of Watson, key DNA researcher

Renowned biologist and Nobel laureate Dr. James Watson will auction off his Nobel Prize in Medicine for an estimated $2.5 to $3.5 million this Thursday. A portion of the proceeds is intended for the University of Chicago.

Dr. Watson, 86, received the prize alongside scientists Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 for groundbreaking research on the molecular structure of nucleic acids. First published in Nature, their findings described the double helix of DNA and highlighted its significance in transferring genetic information, ultimately pioneering the field of molecular biology.

Melissa Abernathy, a spokesperson for auctioneer Christie’s New York, emphasized the significance of this sale. “Nobel Prizes rarely go on auction, and the subject of the prize is what makes it so valuable,” she said. “The opportunity to own a piece of scientific history makes this prize valuable.”

In addition to the medal, Watson’s handwritten acceptance speech notes and the manuscript for his Nobel Lecture will be auctioned off separately. These pieces are estimated to fetch a combined value between $500,000 to $700,000.

Although this is the first time a living Nobel laureate is selling their prize, this is the second time a 1962 Nobel prize has come to auction. In April of last year, Crick’s prize was sold by his heirs for over $2 million. Some of the proceeds were donated to research institutions.

According to Christie’s New York, Watson has promised similar donations to research institutions linked to his career, including Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Clare College Cambridge, and the University of Chicago.

“I look forward to making further philanthropic I can continue to do my part in keeping the academic world an environment where great ideas and decency prevail,” Watson said in a press release from Christie’s.

However, apart from donations, Watson has mentioned that the sale is also to recoup income and to re-enter public life following controversial comments he made in an interview with The Sunday Times. In the 2007 article, Watson mentioned doubts on whether intelligence is equal among all races and was subsequently ostracized by the scientific community.

“I was fired from the boards of companies, so I have no income apart from my academic income...I was set back. It was stupid on my part. All you can do is nothing, but hope that people actually know what you are,” Watson said in interview with Financial Times.

Nevertheless, Christie’s New York does not expect Watson’s controversy and financial motivations to deter buyers. “Dr. Watson’s scientific reputation speaks for itself,” Abernathy said.

Watson, a UChicago alum, graduated from the College in 1947 with a degree in Zoology. He visited campus in October of this year to donate a statue of Charles Darwin to the school.