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Avoid Boring People, James D. Watson

ISBN 978-0-375-41284-4, 368 pp. (2007) Oxford University Press

[Avoid boring people]Chapter 1 of James D. Watson's “The Double Helix” (Athenaeum, 1968) famously began “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”. Readers of Watson's recent books might feel that they have rarely known Watson to write in either a modest or a reticent vein. Thus, in “Genes, Girls and Gamow” (A.A. Knopf, 2002), the very detailed and indiscreet day-by-day account of his experiences of Cambridge crystallographic and social life during 1953-56 in England, he implies remarkable recall.

Watson's knack for choosing a punchy title is again demonstrated in his latest book “Avoid Boring People”. This is virtually an autobiography, beginning with his childhood and education during the Depression and World War II in Chicago and his early research under Salvador Luria. Successive episodic chapters take his career to Europe and the Cambridge collaboration with Crick (which led to the 1962 Nobel Prize) but dwell little on the 1953-56 period.

Chapters follow on his tenure, 1956-1976, on the faculty at Harvard, overlapping for a time with the directorship of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), 1968-1994. The narrative effectively ends around 1976 as Watson leaves Harvard to become full time Director of CSHL.

Titles of the some of the 15 chapters include “Manners picked up in graduate school”, “Manners deployed for academic zing”, and “Manners appropriate for a Nobel Prize”. Detractors might suggest that manners are an area in which Watson is not well endowed. Consistent with his impatience with those less talented than himself, or holding different opinions, is the advice “Never offer tenure to practitioners of dying disciplines” in the chapter about biology at Harvard entitled “Manners demanded by academic ineptitude”.

Though baptized a Catholic, Watson (born 1928) avoided Mass by accompanying his unreligious father, a socialist-leaning Democrat in US politics, on bird walks. Although this knowledgeable fascination with ornithology continued, Watson attributes his lifelong interest in genetics to reading Schrodinger’s “What is life?” at age 17. He graduated early from grammar school and high school at the age of 15, began a scholarship to the U of Chicago at a time when President Robert Hutchins introduced compulsory survey courses embracing physical and social services and the humanities. Teaching involved the great books of western civilization rather than conventional textbooks. Later at Chicago U. he began to concentrate on the physical and biological sciences and received a BS degree in 1947 while only 19 years old.

Watson went to graduate school at Indiana U. where he began studying phage under Luria, who was to become a Nobel Laureate in 1969. With a Merck post-doctoral fellowship, he was able to spend a year in Copenhagen, ostensibly to learn nucleic-acid chemistry but, in the end he returned to phage experiments. Watson now realized that to get at the essence of DNA one needed to learn basic crystallography. While Maurice Wilkins at King's, London, was unreceptive to enquiries, John Kendrew accepted Watson in the new MRC Unit, directed by Max Perutz, within the Cavendish, itself headed by Bragg.

Crystallographers are likely to find greatest interest in the chapters reprising the post-doctoral years from 1951 at Cambridge and on the drafting and revising of “The Double Helix” manuscript in the 1960s. Under the chapter title “Manners needed for important science”, Watson reminds readers that, though Crick at 35 had no PhD, he was the pre-war recipient of the prize for experimental apparatus at University College, London, and had accomplished ingenious and effective war-time work on magnetic-mine countermeasures. He also reflects that Rosalind Franklin would have recognized the double helix first had she interacted better with Wilkins and other scientists and entered the model-building race. Incidentally, Peter Pauling, who arrived at the Cambridge Unit in 1952, doubted whether there was a race. 'Maurice Wilkins has never raced anyone anywhere!' Watson also acknowledges the contributions of Raymond Gosling at King's, Bill Cochran in the Cavendish, and Jerry Donohue who was there on sabbatical from Caltech.

The chapter “Manners behind readable books”, recounts the gestation of “The Double Helix” and inevitably involves Franklin and her crucial fibre X-ray photographs. In the new book, she is illustrated serving coffee in her Paris laboratory. The original working title for the book, “Honest Jim”, arose from how Watson was addressed ironically by a King's researcher who resented what he regarded as the improper use of Franklin's data. In the Epilogue added to “The Double Helix”, Watson admits that his impressions of Franklin earlier in the book were wrong and he describes her X-ray work at King's as superb. Drafts of the first chapters were composed in the summers of 1962 and 1963, with the rest written in late 1965 during a sabbatical at Cambridge.

Many of the principal characters were highly critical of the frankness and egocentricity of the manuscript, renamed “Base Pairs”, one of them describing it as vulgar popularization. The masterstroke in achieving publication, by Athenaeum since Harvard Press didn't like fights between scientists, may have been Bragg’s. The Foreword which still seems exquisitely composed with a deft allusion to Watson's ‘Pepys-like frankness’ reference to the dilemma about trespassing in another's field, and the challenges of competition or collaboration.

In the Preface to “Avoid Boring People”, Watson notes that, while his unpublished writings will eventually be publicly available in the archives, he wanted to be the first to utilize them. Indeed, his remembered lessons at the end of the double-helix chapter includes the maxim ‘Be the first to tell a good story’. While there is no index and the only career summary is on the flyleaf, Watson includes an extensive collection of 3-4 line thumb-nail sketches of his cast of characters, many now Nobel prize winners or distinguished otherwise.

This memoir is replete with anecdotes. Throughout his career, Watson has come across to many as academically arrogant, ruthlessly gifted, breezily chivalrous, disarmingly candid and untroubled by doubt, but possessing a passionate belief in the ultimate value of genetic research for the human condition. He tells a compelling story of a brilliant scientist, astute enough to ask the right questions, to collaborate with or engage bright people, and to take part, as practitioner or manager, in some of the most significant science of the past half-century. “Avoid Boring People” contains some good advice for scientists on their way up - like always having a patron in case, say, an expected grant application is turned down. Crystallographers who have not read any of Watson's recent books should sample this one first.

Derry W Jones