The Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory (CSHL) has stripped James Watson, the 90-year-old Nobel Prize-winning scientist famous for determining the double-helix structure of DNA with his partner Francis Crick in the 1950s based on research conducted by British chemist Rosalind Franklin, of all his honorary titles. This was done after the laboratory deemed his recent remarks on race “reprehensible”, CNN reported this weekend.
Watson has long expressed questionable views, including a 1997 interview in which he expressed unreserved support for abortion rights — something that might have been relatively uncontroversial had he not specifically mentioned fetuses determined to have hypothetical genes leading to homosexuality, dyslexia, or a lack of musical or sports talent as valid reasons to terminate a pregnancy.
But it’s his remarks on race that have drawn the most scorn, such as a 2007 interview with a British journalist in which Watson said he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” due to (debunked) research allegedly showing racial gaps in intelligence, per The New York Times. In that interview, he also said he wished racial equality was real but “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
However, the laboratory’s decision to revoke Watson’s honours and titles is the result of American Masters: Decoding Watson, a PBS documentary that aired in the US earlier this month.
In that interview, Watson said that his views had not changed and he had not “seen any knowledge” negating his belief that there is a genetic connection between race and intelligence, the Times wrote. He also said he took no joy in “the difference between blacks and whites” and that “it’s awful, just like it’s awful for schizophrenics”.
Watson’s views on race are not only scientifically unsupported — National Institutes of Health director Dr Francis Collins told the Times he was unaware of any credible research from which Watson could have come to such “profoundly unfortunate” conclusions — he keeps expressing them at a time when racial pseudoscience is on the upswing.
Per CNN, while Watson had already been relieved of his administrative duties, CSHL has now moved to strip him of all remaining honorary titles:
The 90-year-old’s comments were labelled “reprehensible” by the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory (CSHL) on New York’s Long Island, where Watson had been the director from 1968 to 1993.
The laboratory said it “unequivocally rejects the unsubstantiated and reckless personal opinions Dr. James D. Watson expressed,” noting the statements were “reprehensible [and] unsupported by science.”
According to The Guardian, the revoked titles “include chancellor emeritus, Oliver R Grace professor emeritus, and honorary trustee”.
CSHL president Bruce Stillman and chair of the board of trustees Marilyn Simons said in a statement on Friday that the views expressed in the PBS documentary amount to a retraction of Watson’s prior apologies and “require the severing of any remaining vestiges of his involvement”:
Dr. Watson has not been involved in the leadership or management of Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory for more than a decade and he has no further roles or responsibilities at CSHL...
Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory acknowledges and appreciates Dr. Watson’s substantial scientific legacy, including his role as founding director of the Human Genome Project and his critical leadership in the development of research and education at the Laboratory during his prior tenure as Director and President. Nonetheless, the statements he made in the documentary are completely and utterly incompatible with our mission, values, and policies, and require the severing of any remaining vestiges of his involvement.
“I believe there is very broad support among the faculty for the multiple steps that CSHL is taking in response to Watson’s horrific comments,” CSHL biologist Justin Kinney told STAT. “The CSHL administration has been very proactive on this matter, seeking input from all of us as well as from many members of the broader scientific community.”
As British geneticist Adam Rutherford argued in 2014, when Watson complained in an interview that the scientific community had shunned him, it revealed a “pernicious character entirely unrelated to his scientific greatness, but that is longstanding and not new”.
Watson and Crick’s key evidence in their study, Photo 51, was produced by Franklin and her graduate assistant Ray Gosling at King’s College London, and secured without Franklin’s knowledge or authorisation via her supervisor, Maurice Wilkins. (Franklin never received a Nobel Prize, as she died in 1958, four years before the others received theirs.)
Rutherford noted that in Watson’s 1968 book The Double Helix, Watson referred to Franklin by the nickname “Rosy” (“despite there being no evidence that anyone else ever did”) and wrote mean-spirited appraisals of her physical appearance.
In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report on gender harassment in science, which Science Mag used as an opportunity to discuss Watson’s condescending writings on how Franklin’s “belligerent moods” supposedly interfered with Wilkins’ ability to “maintain a dominant position that would allow him to think unhindered about DNA”, as well as that she “had to go or be put in her place”.
The magazine also noted that Crick was quoted in the 1993 book Nobel Prize Women in Science as admitting, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt — let’s say, a patronizing attitude towards her.”