He may have unravelled DNA, but James Watson deserves to be shunned

The scientist is crying poverty and selling his Nobel prize medal, but why should anyone be interested in his racist, sexist views?

James Watson
‘James Watson said that while people may like to think that all races are born with equal intelligence, those ‘who have to deal with black employees find this not true’.’ Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

The great scientist James Watson is to auction his Nobel prize medal. He told the Financial Times this week that following accusations of racism in 2007, “no one really wants to admit I exist”, and as a result his income had plummeted and he has become an “unperson”.

This sounds awful: an 86-year-old hero ostracised for his views, shooed from public life by the people who walk in his scientific shadow.

But it’s not awful. Watson has said that he is “not a racist in a conventional way”. But he told the Sunday Times in 2007 that while people may like to think that all races are born with equal intelligence, those “who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. Call me old-fashioned, but that sounds like bog-standard, run-of-the-mill racism to me.

And this current whinge bemoans a new poverty born of his pariah status. Apart “from my academic income”, he says, Watson is condemned to a miserly wage that prevents him from buying a David Hockney painting.

His comments reveal a pernicious character entirely unrelated to his scientific greatness, but that is longstanding and not new. Watson is rightly venerated for being half of the pair, along with Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA, and for leading the Human Genome Project. The story of the unveiling of the double helix is messy and complex, just like all biology. It has been pored over and studied and embellished and mythologised. But simply, the race was won by Crick and Watson, and in April 1953 they revealed to the world the iconic double helix. The key evidence, however, Photo 51, was produced by Rosalind Franklin and Ray Gosling, at King’s College London. Franklin’s skill at the technique known as X-ray crystallography was profound, and was indubitably essential to the discovery. Crick and Watson acquired the photo without her knowledge.

With their unique insight and vision, Crick and Watson deserve their Nobel gongs. Contrary to some narratives, Franklin was not overlooked in this accolade. The rules are quite clear: Nobels are not awarded posthumously. Franklin had died from cancer aged just 37, in 1958, four years before the Nobel committee recognised what is undoubtedly one of the most significant scientific advances of the 20th or any century.

With Nobels, we put people on pedestals and gift them platforms to say whatever they like. Here, they represent science, but contrary to stereotype, there isn’t a typical scientist. We’re just people.

Some Nobel laureates say stupid ignorant things. Most say little beyond their expertise, and some, such as the president of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, are great leaders and campaigners for science and society.

The first account of the story of DNA was by Watson himself, and reveals his character. Honest Jim is what he wanted to call the book that was published as The Double Helix in 1968. It is a classic of nonfiction writing, and deservedly so. It is brilliant and racy and gossipy, and full of questionable truths.

He patronisingly refers to Franklin as “Rosy” throughout, despite there being no evidence that anyone else ever did. Here’s a sample of how he described her in the first few pages: “Though her features were strong, she was not unattractive, and might have been quite stunning had she taken even a mild interest in clothes. This she did not.”

Like all contemporary biologists, my career is largely based on his work. The medal? If I could afford it, I wouldn’t want it. My field, human genetics, was founded by another racist, Francis Galton, who sought to demonstrate white British dominance over the colonies using biometrics. He gave birth to eugenics, an endeavour never realised in the UK, but that was broadly supported around the beginning of the 20th century across the political spectrum, from Churchill to Marie Stopes to William Beveridge. His and my alma mater, UCL, is currently thinking hard about how to scold his racism and continue to respect his scientific legacy, which is undeniable and unrivalled. The nicest irony is that genetics – the field he founded and Watson transformed – is precisely the subject that has singularly demonstrated that race as a scientific concept holds no water.

“No one really wants to admit I exist” says Watson. That’s not it. It’s more that no one is interested in his racist, sexist views. Watson, alongside Crick, will always be the discoverer of the double helix, to my mind the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Here’s our challenge: celebrate science when it is great, and scientists when they deserve it. And when they turn out to be awful bigots, let’s be honest about that too. It turns out that just like DNA, people are messy, complex and sometimes full of hideous errors.

DNA pioneer James Watson sets out radical theory for range of diseases

Watson’s controversial hypothesis about cause of diabetes, dementia, heart disease and cancer published in medical journal
Scientist in race row

James Watson, 85, says he developed his theory after pondering why exercise seems to benefit people with high blood sugar. Photograph: Edmond Terakopian/PA

Not satisfied with his work that unravelled the double helix structure of DNA and landed him a share of a Nobel prize half a century ago, James Watson has come up with a radical theory for diabetesdementia, heart disease and cancer.

The 85-year-old scientist has turned to the pages of the Lancet medical journal to set forth his grand idea, which some academics say may not have seen the light of day had it come from anyone else.

Watson, who stepped down as director of the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory in New York in 2007 after the Times quoted his views on Africa and intelligence, has arranged a conference at the lab this year to explore his latest hypothesis.

Writing in the Lancet, Watson claims that late onset, or type 2 diabetes, is traditionally thought to be caused by oxidation in the body that causes inflammation and kills off pancreatic cells. But he thinks the root of that inflammation is quite different: “The fundamental cause, I suggest, is a lack of biological oxidants, not an excess,” he writes.

Watson, a keen singles tennis player, says he developed his theory after pondering why exercise seemed to benefit people with high blood sugar, an early indicator of future diabetes. Exercise produced “reactive oxygen species” that were widely thought to be harmful.

Other research fed into his thinking, chiefly a study by Matthias Blüher at the University of Leipzig. He showed that reactive oxygen species released in exercise combatted the insulin resistance seen in diabetes, but that the benefits vanished if you gave people antioxidants before the exercised.

Watson believes that rather than being wholly bad, oxidising molecules, such as hydrogen peroxide, are crucial for the body’s health. In particular, he points out that hydrogen peroxide goes to work in a cellular organ called the endoplasmic reticulum, where it ensures proteins are stable. If levels of oxidants are too low, he suggests, the proteins become misshapen and cause the inflammation that damages the pancreas. And a raft of other diseases.

Large studies have already shown that antioxidant supplements do not help people to live longer. Watson’s hypothesis also suggests there is nothing to be gained, though he makes a point of saying he is not qualified to give people health advice.

“Just about every doctor I’ve ever known tells every patient who is capable of doing so to exercise. I think exercise helps us produce healthy, functional proteins. But we really need to have some high-quality research to demonstrate this.”

He adds: “We sorely need to take a much more serious and thorough scientific look at the mechanisms through which exercise improves our health.”

Watson’s idea received a mixed reception from scientists on Thursday. One professor of metabolic medicine was unimpressed and said the idea was not even novel. “It is only because of his name that James Watson is allowed to present his woolly thoughts in the Lancet,” he said.

The director of the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit at the University of Cambridge, Stephen O’Rahilly, was less scathing. He said: “He’s exhorting more science to be done on how physical activity might be beneficial. We need to understand the mechanism. Making the right reactive oxygen species in the right place at the right time is critical for us to stay well, and blocking them might not be a good idea.”