Five weeks before Eric Lander of the Broad Institute got pilloried on social media for making a brief toast to James Watson — the icon of biology who has sullied his legacy with racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist statements — Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory held a full day meeting explicitly honoring Watson, without triggering so much as a Twitter peep.
Instead, leading scientists who spoke or attended filled social media with their gratitude to the organizer for holding the April 7 celebration of Watson’s 90th birthday.
Harvard geneticist Gary Ruvkun tweeted that it was “an honor to be part of the celebration of Jim,” while Maria Zuber, vice president of research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chair of the National Science Board, tweeted her thanks to biotech entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg “for organizing a symposium of vast scope and inspiration to honor James Watson on his 90th birthday! Honored to participate!” Zuber did not respond to STAT’s requests to discuss Watson’s legacy; Ruvkun said he could not immediately respond.
In a tweet the morning after the meeting, Rothberg thanked the speakers “for making James Watson’s 90th birthday inspiring.” After STAT this week asked a spokesman for an interview with Rothberg about the event, the tweet was deleted. The spokesman said Rothberg is traveling and unreachable.
The participants’ adulation went unnoticed, in contrast to Lander’s toast last Friday afternoon at the same Long Island, N.Y., research center. The toast came at the conclusion of a Cold Spring Harbor meeting on the biology of genomes; Lander toasted Watson’s many contributions to science, from co-discovering the double-helical structure of DNA to serving as first director of the Human Genome Project. Because of Watson’s racist and sexist remarks over the years, that earned Lander, who has left a trail of critics as he ascended to the top echelons of science, the fury of the twitterati. On Monday, he issued a full-throated apology, saying, “I was wrong to toast, and I’m sorry.”
Last month’s meeting at the lab, where Watson began as director in 1968 and served as president (1994 to 2003) and chancellor (2003 to 2007), was “in honor” of him on his 90th birthday, the meeting announcement said. Its speakers included luminaries from fields as different as astronomy, genetics, and sociology, and it raised $750,000 for the lab.
In addition to Ruvkun and Zuber, the speakers included Richard Gibbs, founder and director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine and a leader of the Human Genome Project; MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark; Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis; CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang of the Broad and MIT; and astronomer Jill Tarter. (Lander did not attend.)
It is an understatement to call Watson a giant of 20th century biology. “No one can or should try to deny the greatness of Jim’s scientific contributions,” MIT emerita professor of biology Nancy Hopkins told STAT this week. She was not at either Cold Spring Harbor meeting but has known Watson for decades. “He discovered the secret of life in DNA. He founded the field of molecular biology” and “nurtured legions of young women and men scientists. He helped launch the genome project,” she said. “He and his discovery will be remembered when the rest of us are dust.”
But Watson told a newspaper in 2007 that Africans do “not really” have “the same [intelligence] as ours,” according to “all the testing.” In a statement at the time, he said he “cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly.” Seven years before, however, Watson had made similar racist and sexist claims, in a speech at the University of California, Berkeley.
Cold Spring Harbor’s board of trustees fired him in 2007, though he retains the title chancellor emeritus and retains an office on campus.
Most of the speakers at the April meeting did not respond to STAT’s request to discuss how best to honor the undeniable contributions of a scientist who has made odious, scientifically unsupported arguments about race and gender. The lab declined to comment about the challenges of honoring a tarnished icon, something other institutions (Princeton University, with Woodrow Wilson; Yale, with John C. Calhoun; and more) wrestled with even before the #MeToo movement raised pointed questions about whether it’s acceptable, let alone possible, to separate the individual from the work.
One speaker, Ellen Jorgensen, president of the nonprofit Biotech without Borders, which promotes citizen science, said that Watson’s “dark dimensions” do not “negate his massive contributions to science through his own work and his leadership of CSHL, and I chose to honor these contributions by attending.”
She also considered Watson’s advanced age, Jorgensen said, which can cause people to lose “civilized filters. I feel a bit sorry for Watson since the world has moved on from where his head is at right now.” In general, she said, scientists “should be held accountable for what they say” (she supports CSHL’s decision to fire Watson from his chancellorship in 2007). “They have a podium by virtue of their fame, and they should not be surprised or angry if they lose jobs that give them power over others.”
Biochemist Frances Arnold of Caltech, who attended the April symposium and on Twitter called it a “wonderful celebration” of his birthday, said she did so “to honor not the man, but the science. Few of us really know the man, beyond what gets covered in the press and social media, which is not very flattering. But the science is spectacular. The structure of DNA explained so much and opened up whole new realms of science that inspired and motivated many people, including me. Science is a human endeavor, and there is no doubt that James Watson is a human, with all the warts and wonders.”
University of California, Davis, plant geneticist Pamela Ronald said that she considered not participating in the April event because it explicitly honored Watson, but that her curiosity about what he was like in person and the chance to meet the other prominent researchers led her to go. She also went to highlight plant biology.
“I’m a Jewish female geneticist and feminist,” Ronald said. “I grew up with many stories about Jim Watson, of course about the discovery of the double helix, but of course about Rosalind Franklin and about the things he’s said over the years.” (Franklin took the crucial X-ray images of DNA that allowed Watson and Francis Crick to deduce its structure, but Watson repeatedly downplayed her contributions.)
If she avoided meetings attended by men who had behaved or spoken inappropriately, she said, “I wouldn’t go to any meetings.”
Although recognizing Watson’s legacy is justified, holding symposia in his honor is more problematic, said MIT’s Hopkins, who was instrumental in getting the university to address decades of gender inequality in its treatment of its science faculty. “It depends on the purpose of the event,” she said. “If it’s to honor his scientific accomplishments and discoveries, or for people who benefitted from his teaching and mentoring, to thank him, that seems appropriate. But one has to be sensitive to the hurt he has caused to the groups that he has suggested are genetically inferior. I also think other scientists have an obligation to come forward and explain to the public why those beliefs are not science-based, as well as the gruesome damage done because people held such false views and acted on them.”
Scholars who have grappled with how to honor the historic contributions of a problematic figure like Watson have reached a similar conclusion.
Princeton, for instance, considered removing Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs after students and others called attention to the former president’s racist policies, including re-segregating government agencies. In 2016, the university decided to retain the name. But it acknowledged the need to publicly recognize Wilson’s abhorrent policies and views.
“That was the core of the issue,” said Princeton historian Joshua Guild. “Not Wilson or no Wilson, but having an honest reckoning in all its complexity.” In Watson’s case, Guild said, that means “talking about the person in totality. I don’t think you should erase someone’s contributions,” but a symposium honoring him might also include sessions discussing the science that disproves assertions about the genetically based intellectual inferiority of women and blacks.
In a note sent over social media on Tuesday, CSHL meetings director David Stewart noted that Lander’s Friday afternoon toast of Watson was intended to mark the 15th anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project, of which Watson was the first director. “I have watched with regret the public concern that followed the toast,” Stewart wrote. “I had not considered the way it might be interpreted and I am very sorry if it surprised and offended any participant at the meeting or other members of the genetics community.”