James Watson helped unravel the structure of DNA, a feat so stunning that it is considered the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century. A Nobel Prize winner as a result, Dr. Watson is deeply proud of his Irish heritage and is “very pleased” to be inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame on March 15th.
Next up for Watson is a cure for cancer, and he believes he once again holds the key to that extraordinary breakthrough. And who can doubt him? At 82, he is as committed and hardworking a scientist as ever.
He spoke to me from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York.
Tell me about your Irish heritage.
I’m a quarter Irish through my grandmother Elizabeth Gleeson who was born in 1861. Her parents came here from Ireland, I believe it was Tipperary, around 1847 or 48 and went to Ohio for 10 years and farmed there and then moved to a farm six miles south of Michigan City, Indiana. It’s a decent farm which I believe they maintained through the 1930s.
You’ve been to Ireland many times, right?
Oh yes, I have accepted degrees from Trinity College and Limerick and Cork universities. I was there last September. I’m deeply proud of my Irish heritage.
I was amazed to read that in 1953 when you presented the paper on DNA, the major media barely covered it. It is now considered by most experts the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century.
They didn’t cover it at all. Time magazine was going to run a story and photographs were taken, so we have photographs, otherwise we wouldn’t have anything. But Time never ran the article.
And then there was a very short notice in the News Chronicle, another paper at that time, which came out maybe in early June . In genetics, the discovery was thought very important but it didn’t have much impact on the way biology was done until about five years later, and then there were some experiments which sort of confirmed our main hypothesis that the strands would separate and that was through an experiment done in 1958. But I would say, it wasn’t until the early sixties when the genetic code was being worked out that people began to take it seriously.
I wrote the first work about why DNA was so important and that came out in 1965 to mark the biology of the gene.
When you made the discovery, or co-shared the discovery with Francis Crick, were you aware that this was a Nobel Prize-winning feat?
Yes. I mean it was so obvious. I would say in less than a minute we knew that it was more than big. I didn’t jump up and say, “We’ll get a Nobel Prize,” but it was pretty obvious to us that it was a big breakthrough. But the majority of people in science weren’t interested in how the genetic chromosomes and sources of information worked. It was a new way of thinking. The first person from the outside who saw the information [as a] breakthrough was the great Russian-born physicist George Gamow, who wrote a letter about it in June, 1953.
Amazing when you consider that today everybody talks about DNA.
DNA is sort of everywhere now in everyday life. People are always wondering about [the question of] Nature or Nurture, and what we can learn from our hereditary genes.
What’s the answer?
We don’t know but we should and I think we will. And I think knowledge of DNA will eventually encompass all medical knowledge about it, but it will probably take years.
The thing now is to learn the influence that DNA has on your medical history – we still know very little. When we do know it will be a huge breakthrough for our medical treatments. And this will be a huge, huge issue when doctors become literate and able to explain and decipher it.
I had my entire genome traced but it hasn’t affected me at all, because we don’t know how to interpret that hereditary information yet. So when we learn that, it will be a massive breakthrough. So now you have the map, but you’re not quite sure where it all leads or what it means.
In an immediate sense, medical records have to be digitized because if you ask most people “do you have your medical records since birth?” the answer is “no.” You probably have them with your current doctor and before that your previous doctor. But [earlier than that] they’re effectively lost.
A lot of your work now is on cancer. How do you see that going?
My main interest now is curing cancer. I think we just might pull it off over the next ten years. I’m sure we can cure most major cancers. We are hopeful now about [curing] a totally incurable leukemia. We think we know how to cure it. So I think we want to go ahead under the assumption we’re going to cure [cancer] over the next 10 years, not over the next 30. You generally hear from people that it’s 10 to 20 years away, whereas when I was in California trying to raise money for [research into] pancreatic and prostate cancer, I was saying, maybe we can cure [these diseases] in 10 years. But we have to work differently. I wanted a million dollars to do preliminary experiments on both the cancers based on the assumption we’re going to cure it in 10 years.
How do you think that will happen?
Well, because the thing we never thought of [before] is that cancer is a sort of failure of differentiation. You know, you have a blood cell, but you don’t make the products of the blood cell and if you converted a cancer cell back into a differentiated cell, that cell would live forever, it wouldn’t modify, and you wouldn’t have cancer. We think we’ve done this for leukemia. And I want to try it for melanoma. So, we’ll see!
That is incredibly exciting.
Oh it is very exciting and for the first time we can sort of write down on paper how we can do it.
Wow, so the idea that cancer can be cured would obviously be a real breakthrough.
Yes. I think that people might then treat scientists like, uh, basketball players.
And pay them as well.
I saw the Lakers in Los Angeles on Friday night. I thought, boy, what a basketball player that Kobe Bryant is.
He’s a great player. Absolutely. The Knicks are looking good too.
You have said that you’re an atheist, can you talk about that?
Yeah, I’m an atheist. [I’ve found] no evidence for God. On the other hand, I’ve always liked Jesus. I don’t think he’s son of God, but, you know, I was in a Catholic hospital in Santa Monica that was run by the Sisters of Charity. You know, of all the virtues, the greatest is charity. I don’t think the Crusaders were very good and the Inquisition was pretty awful, but the Sisters of Charity do wonderful work.
When people actually ask me if I am a Christian [I say that] I follow these beliefs. It’s a set of values. I don’t feel my values are any different from [Christian] people because I was brought up on these values.
So what’s after cancer? What’s left?
I’ll leave that to someone else, I think.
Time magazine had a piece recently saying that one could conceivably have a lifetime of 150 years.
I’d like to make 90 in good shape and then I’m willing to give up.
You seem like you’re in great shape.
I can still play singles’ tennis and I’m still hitting back, not super big serves, but hitting back. I’m still living as if I’m 30, you know.
Do you have a favorite possession?
I have this painting by Ireland’s best artist, Bobby Ballagh, which shows Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. So I personally own one of Ballagh’s most famous paintings. I bought it from a catalogue. He painted my portrait when I was lecturing on genetics at Trinity College and I’ve formally given [the portrait] to the college. I wanted it to be in Trinity so people realize that I’m as much Irish as I am Scottish.
My mother, I’d call her not an Irish Catholic, I’d call her always an Irish Democrat. She was a faithful member of the Chicago Irish tribe
I have always followed my Irish side. I know all about what has happened with the Irish economy. I know things are bad over there, the German bankers should have to endure some of that pain of the lost money they lent those Irish bankers. I mean it’s going to be tricky. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan promised to pay all the bankers off, but Ireland can’t pay those taxes and the realization has dawned that it is a case where you can’t get blood from stone. There was a level of irresponsibility, but now one needs a very good government.
Both the Financial Times and the Economist basically said the bondholders have to lose some money
Absolutely, absolutely. You have to renegotiate, and it will take a year, but until it’s done, no one can move forward.
But Ireland will survive. They are a tough people and have survived much worse. I’m sure of that. They are a wonderful people.
Thank you, Dr. Watson.