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Nobel Scientist Quits in Wake of Scandal

James Watson hangs it up at Cold Spring Harbor after claiming that Africans are intellectually inferior
James Watson



AP PHOTO/ECKEHARD SCHULZ
World-renowned geneticist James Watson today resigned as a top officer of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), in Long Island, N.Y., culminating a rapid fall from grace triggered last week by racially charged statements he made during a newspaper interview.

"This morning I have conveyed to the trustees of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory my desire to retire immediately from my position as its chancellor, as well as from my position on its board, on which I have served for the past 43 years," Watson said in a statement in which he heaped praise on the research facility to which he brought both fame and infamy. "Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue. The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired."

The departure comes in the wake of a scandal that erupted over comments Watson made during an interview published in The Sunday Times of London in which he claimed that blacks are not as smart as whites. The science community swiftly took him to task for the baseless comments. In Europe last week to publicize a new book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, the scientist apologized (expressing surprise that he could have said such things) and cut short his speaking tour, returning home to the U.S. amid a swirl of controversy.

But the damage was already done: CSHL immediately distanced itself from Watson, issuing a statement stressing that his views were his own and not those of the institution where he had served for decades (including as its director from 1968 to 1994 and then as president until 2003)—and then suspending his administrative duties pending an investigation.

There was no mention of the controversy, however, in a release issued today by the CSHL—a leading cancer research facility—announcing the move. Rather, the lab chose to highlight the many pluses in Watson?s career, which include sharing the coveted Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for describing the structure of the genetic material DNA and leading efforts to sequence the human genome.

"For over 40 years, Dr. Watson has made immeasurable contributions to the laboratory's research and education programs," said Eduardo Mestre, chair of CSHL's board. "His legacy as…Nobel Prize laureate…will continue to influence biomedical research for decades to come. The board respects his decision to retire at this point in his career."

Bruce Stillman, CSHL's president added: "Jim Watson created an environment that is unparalleled in the world of science."

Still, this was not the first time that the colorful and, oft-times off-color geneticist found himself in hot water. In a 1990 profile Science wrote: "To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script." Among the notable veering: arguing that a woman should have a right to abort an unborn child if tests could determine it would be gay as well as touting genetic screening and engineering as a potential cure for "stupidity." He did not win many admirers, either, with statements such as: "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

But Watson's latest statements cut too close to home at Cold Spring Harbor, threatening to reopen a notorious chapter in its history between 1910 and 1939 when it housed the Eugenics Record Office, which gathered the "pedigrees" of families and advocated "breeding the strongest and most capable members of a species while making certain that the weakest members do not reproduce," according to the University of Virginia Health System's eugenics historical collection. In fact, one of the program?s early directors was the infamous eugenicist Harry Laughlin, who helped draft a measure in 1914 adopted by nearly 20 states that led to forced sterilization of thousands of men and women deemed mentally or physically unfit, and which later served as a model for the Nazi's sterilization laws.

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