James Dewey Watson
It is a great honour to introduce James Dewey Watson for the award of an honorary Doctorate of Science of the University of Limerick, in recognition of his extraordinary insight and creativity in elucidating the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). He was only twenty-five years old when this work was carried out in 1952. Ten years later, in 1962, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, James Watson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Since then, James Watson has received many awards and prizes from all over the world, including at least 18 honorary degrees. However, none of these has been from an Irish University, and we are therefore especially delighted in Limerick to-day to welcome home and honour one of our own. Cold Spring Harbor, where James Watson currently resides and works, is a long way from Co Tipperary, from where his great grandfather, Michael Gleason, born in 1822, emigrated to the USA as a young man. He went first to Ohio and then to Northern Indiana where he farmed until his death in 1899.
Born in Chicago on 6 April 1928, James Watson was admitted to the University of Chicago when he was only fifteen. He qualified with a degree in Zoology and in 1950 graduated, at the age of 22, with a PhD from Indiana University. After a year as a post-doctoral fellow in Copenhagen he went to work as a postdoctoral fellow at the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, England, where Francis Crick was a fellow researcher. These two very opposite scientists, one young, brilliant and brash, the other, quiet, studious and reserved, formulated a molecular model for DNA: the Double Helix. The DNA double helix consists of two interlinked sugar-phosphate chains, with flat base pairs forming the steps between them, which can be likened to two intertwined spiral staircases. In their letter to Nature (March 1953, Vol. 171, pages 737-738) describing their theory, Watson and Crick concluded with the following sentence: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
Shortly after Watson and Crick announced their structure for DNA, Max Delbrück, wrote in a letter to James Watson: "I have a feeling that if your structure is true, and if its suggestions concerning the nature of replication have any validity at all, then all hell will break loose". And break loose it did. A turning point had been reached which gave birth to the new science of Molecular Biology. This in turn has given us genetic and protein engineering, biotechnology and gene therapy. James Watson is thus a father to all of these sciences.
James Watson has not been inactive since his contribution to the unravelling of the genetic code. He became a full professor at Harvard University at the age of 33, and remained in that position for fifteen years. Shortly after his marriage in 1968 to Elizabeth Lewis, he moved to his present location in Cold Spring Harbor, a whaling village on the North Shore of Long Island, accepting the task of 'saving' Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This institution was in poor physical condition and lacked fiscal stability and thus many of the staff had left. Key to Professor Watson's decision to move was the assurance from Harvard University that he would remain as a salaried professor there as long as he continued to give his lectures and supervise his graduate students. "So I could worry about the future of the Lab without fear that my salary would vanish along with the Lab." He was a cautious, newly married man!
James Watson, however, loved the Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor. He had been a summer student there when he was twenty years old. The beauty of the harbour and the building were much to be admired. The Laboratory had other scientists in residence at that time, including individuals like Alfred Hershey and Barbara McClintock, both Nobel Laureates. According to a report of the Laboratory describing his period there, his decision to take on the task of saving science at Cold Spring Harbor was not "an entirely selfless act". He had 2020 vision and saw the direction in which science was going. He took Cold Spring Harbor down the animal cell virus road, applying for and receiving million from the National Institute of Health, and he has never looked back in his twenty-five years as director of the laboratory.
In a Cold Spring Harbor Annual Report, James Watson wrote: "From the start, I saw that the task of understanding cancer would require large team efforts involving many senior scientists with highly different backgrounds and so beyond my resources as a Professor at Harvard. There, my research space linked me to a research group of at most ten students and postdocs. In contrast, there would be no limitation of available laboratory space at Cold Spring Harbor, provided I could obtain the funds to upgrade the unoccupied but dilapidated structures".
In 1994 when James Watson stepped down as Director of the Laboratory and became its President, there were on the staff 168 scientists, over 100 postdoctoral fellows and a large support staff, and the yearly income was million. The laboratory is spread along Bungtown Road, a tree-lined country road, where country houses converted to laboratories dot the landscape. Together with his wife Elizabeth, he personally oversaw the renovation projects. Elizabeth Watson is author of a beautifully illustrated book, Houses for Science, which shows that good scientific research does not have to be carried out in unattractive buildings.
James Watson has written many books, including The Molecular Biology of the Gene, a core textbook for many students. His volume The Double Helix, describing the discovery which led to the Nobel Prize, was a best seller and continues to be reprinted. It illustrates very clearly the artistic creativity, the lateral thinking and the interdisciplinarity which were necessary to make the breakthrough on the structure of DNA. It also illustrates in a very graphic way the conflicts and relationships which can exist between scientists who are competing to achieve the same goals. Through his writing and by his personal example, James Watson has inspired and nurtured many young scientists in their pursuit of excellence in science.
James Watson was Director of the Human Genome Project of the National Institute of Research for many years. The human genome is the total genetic (that is, hereditary) makeup of a human being. A knowledge of its structure and sequence will allow an understanding to be gained of almost all human diseases and genetic defects. If successful, the project is expected to give the key to understanding the deepest recesses of biology and medicine and to provide cures for all human ailments. We look forward to hearing more about this controversial and exciting project in the public lecture, hosted by the student Chem-Bio Society, which Professor Watson has kindly agreed to deliver immediately after this ceremony.
This is a new University and the College of Science is even newer. Professor Watson will be the second recipient of an honorary doctorate who has been nominated by this College, and he does us a great honour by agreeing to accept it.