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Inspiring Science: Jim Watson and the Age of DNA

Subject Area(s):  General Interest TitlesCold Spring Harbor Laboratory HistoryHistory of Science

Edited by John Inglis, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; Joseph Sambrook, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre; Jan A. Witkowski, Banbury Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

© 2003 • 503 pp., illus., bibliography, index
Hardcover • $37 7.40 (click here to price in UK Pounds)
ISBN  978-087969698-6
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  •     Reviews    


For James D. Watson, the year 2003 was momentous: The 50th anniversary of the discovery, with Francis Crick, of the DNA double helix; the 35th anniversary of the publication of his best–selling memoir of the discovery, The Double Helix; the 35th anniversary of his appointment as Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an institution he molded into a research and education center of international renown and prestige: and the year in which the sequencing of the human genome was completed, a project of unprecedented international effort and coordination that Watson got off the ground and sustained during its first, critical years.

In the course of his 75 years, Watson has achieved a reputation as outspoken, capricious, abrasive, and ruthless in pursuing his visionary goals. Few other scientists have achieved his celebrity status, or enjoyed it so much, without losing professional credibility.

Yet behind the public notoriety there is a complexity apparent only to those who know Watson as a colleague, mentor, inspiration, and friend. This book gives voice to 43 of these individuals—people of distinction who have worked with Watson as a scientist, educator, author, administrator, and government official.

Their essays cover much of his scientific life and, taken together, create a portrait of a complex man whose originality and force of will have produced extraordinary achievements.


Foreword, by Matt Ridley
James D. Watson’s Life and Work: A Timeline
Introduction: Student Days
Phage Days in Indiana, Renato Dulbecco
Quiz Kids, Gunther S. Stent
Some Early Recollections of Jim Watson, Seymour Benzer
REPRINT: The Properties of X–ray–inactivated Bacteriophage. I. Inactivation by Direct Effect, James Dewey Watson
Introduction: Talking and Thinking
Jim’s Cool Reception among the British Geneticists, Avrion Mitchison
Recollections of Jim Watson, Naomi Mitchison
Our Work on Virus Structure, Francis H.C. Crick
One Day in the Cavendish (April 1, 1953), Gerald Roland Pomerat
Jim and Syd, Sydney Brenner
A Letter to Jim, January 14, 2002, Max F. Perutz
Monday Morning Quarterback, Elof Carlson
“The Night before Crickmas,” Rollin Hotchkiss
REPRINT: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick
REPRINT: Genetical Implications of the Structure of Dexoyribonucelic Acid, J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick
REPRINT: The Complementary Structure of Dexoyribonucleic Acid, F.H.C. Crick and J.D. Watson
Introduction: A Day in June
Memories of the 1953 Symposium, Robert L. Sinsheimer, Julius Marmur, Charles Yanofsky, Louis Siminovitch, Frank Fenner, Roy J. Britten, Howard Green, Theodore T. Puck, Waclaw Szybalski, Joseph S. Gots, Hillary Koprowski
Symposium on “Viruses,” The Long–Islander Article
Letter to Max Delbrück, James D. Watson
REPRINT: The Structure of DNA, J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick
Nobel Banquet Speech, James D. Watson
Introduction: Caltech, Cambridge, and Harvard
Remembering Delbrück, James D. Watson
Does RNA Form a Double Helix?, Alexander Rich
Flowers and Phage, Joan Steitz
On the Edge: My Time in Jim Watson’s Lab, Benno Müller–Hill
When Ribosomes Were King, Alfred Tissières
It Smells Right..., Lionel V. Crawford
Excerpt from Naturalist, Edward O. Wilson
Growing Up Around Jim, Jeffrey H. Miller
Seems Simple, Very Hard to Do, Mark Ptashne
Watson at Harvard (1956–1976), Paul Doty
REPRINT: Structure of Small Viruses, F.H.C. Crick and J.D. Watson
REPRINT: Unstable Ribonucleic Acid Revealed by Pulse Labelling of Escherichia coli, F. Gros, H. Hiatt, W. Gilbert, C.G. Kurland, R.W. Risebrough, and J.D. Watson
Introduction: An Emotional Attachment
Cold Spring Harbor 1958–1968: The Years between Demerec and Watson, John Cairns
Life with Jim, Norton D. Zinder
CSHL in the Sixties: A View from the Trenches, Ann Skalka
REPRINT: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Director’s Report, 1989, James D. Watson
Jim as a Mentor, 1971–1974, Philip A. Sharp
From Development of Yeast Cells to Human Brain Hemispheres, Amar J.S. Klar
Big Shoes to Fill, with the Laces Untied, Bruce Stillman
Just Jim, Michael Wigler
Milestones and Mentoring: How Jim Watson Influenced a Scientific Career, Douglas Hanahan
CSHL in Transition, Raymond F. Gesteland
Cold Spring Harbor and Recombinant DNA, Thomas Maniatis
REPRINT: Origin of Concatemeric T7 DNA, J.D. Watson
Jim and the Board: Behind the Scenes, Bayard Clarkson
Vision, Innovation, Breadth, and Strength, David L. Luke III
Portraits: Robertson, Pulling, and Grace, James D. Watson
A Morning on the Porch, Jim Eisenman
An Architect at the Lab: Some Personal Recollections, William Grover
Introduction: Managing the Genome
Dr. Watson Goes to Washington, Bradie Metheny
Jim Watson and the Human Genome Project, James B. Wyngaarden
The Colossus of Codes, Robert Cook–Deegan
Jim and the Japanese Human Genome Project, Kenichi Matsubara
Climbing the Ladder of Life: James D. Watson and the ELSI Years, Nancy Wexler
Introduction: Communicating Science
The Pied Piper at Harvard, David Botstein
There Is More Yet to Come, Arnold J. Levine
What I Have Learned from Jim, Bruce M. Alberts
On Drawing Molecules, Keith Roberts
Education by the Sea Shore, Jan Witkowski and John Inglis
Bibliography—James D. Watson


review:  “That the volume is such a good read probably reflects the capabilities of Watson's friends as well as the efforts of the three editors. From the excellent foreword by Matt Ridley to the final explanatory notes on puzzling details (including descriptions of quiz kids, Delbrück's principle of limited sloppiness, and Benzer's lunchtime diet of crocodile tail), Inspiring Science is a delight, a ride in a convertible through history. The editors deserve accolades for their excellent selections and documentation. Watson himself deserves credit for doing such important work with such panache.”

review:  “The purpose of Inspiring Science, the editors write, ‘is not to reconstruct an academic history or an authoritative biography, but to record friendship and appreciation.’ . . . The editors are to be congratulated on compiling and organizing such a readable and informative set of recollections that will serve very effectively the role they intended.”

review:  “History–making scientist of international fame, successful manager of one of the best biological think–tanks, standard–setting textbook author, popularizer and public advocate of science, government advisor: “Jim of all trades” be his nom de guerre. Inspiring Science brings us closer to a seemingly larger–than–life man whose long shadow will be cast far into the twenty–first century. Without him, someone else would sooner or later have solved the mystery that half a century ago surrounded DNA. But there is no doubt that Watson had a profound effect on the development of molecular biology in the second half of the twentieth century. He is one of the truly powerful puppeteers of the scientific world, pulling the strings on which the rest of us dangle and dance. Inspiring Science reveals that behind the awe–inspiring public image is a human being with the usual set of strengths and weaknesses, qualifications and shortcomings.

Inspiring Science will be not so much remembered for its literary accomplishments as it will be cherished by historians and psychologists as a precious time capsule laying bare the mechanics of science at the end of the twentieth century. Inspiring Science is inspiring reading.”
      —Nature Medicine

review:  “The book’s title has a double meaning. The discovery of the double helix was as inspiring as science gets—indeed, it ranks with the great cultural achievements of all time. However, even after a golden jubilee of tributes to this austerely beautiful and deeply informative source of inspiration, the editors of this volume—John Inglis, Joe Sambrook, and Jan Witkowski—felt that there was another dimension of Jim Watson's influence that risked historical neglect.  Rarely, if ever, has a scientist who made a great discovery matched Watson's influence on the subsequent development of a whole field of science. The editors set out to capture a kaleidoscopic view of the ways in which Watson inspired three generations of scientists to consummate a scientific revolution.

When asked for his blessing for this project, Watson acceded. He also offered the editors terse advice: the book should contain 'nothing too worshipful and certainly nothing boring.' To a remarkable extent, they succeeded in fulfilling his wishes. There is an element in this book of the parable about the blind men and the elephant. Nowhere is there any real effort at synthesis. What we get is an outpouring of recollections from a stunning variety of vantage points. These reminiscences bring Watson's many contradictions into view, if not precisely into focus.”

review:  “These personal reflections on Watson provide historians and biologists with a wealth of information about the molecular biology community over the past 50 years. From charming anecdotes about driving around the Midwest in the 1940s by Renato Dulbecco to Joan Steitz’s thoughtful and candid discussion of her experiences as one of the first women to earn a PhD in molecular biology, this collection is full of personal details that enrich our understanding of the scientists who study the molecules of life. These details form a social, cultural, and political context that is as colorful as Watson himself, and as important as the science he has guided over the past 50 years.”
      —The Quarterly Review of Biology

review:  “This volume is as unusually coherent and impressive as its central figure. First, it occupies an odd niche in the landscape of biographical collections: a gathering of first–hand recollections of a scientist’s career, achievements, and personality quirks by colleagues and old friends. With forty–six contributions by these witnesses to Watson’s life (many including excerpts from memoranda, diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings), four pieces by Watson himself, as well as eight reprints of his more significant publications, this collection presents a substantial yet scattered gathering of historical material for consideration. The recollections by friends and colleagues vary from accounts of specific experimental achievements and the rippling impact of his publications, to recollections of Watson’s professional confrontations, travel stories, and even his behavior at parties...

This book is interesting as it does little to dissuade the brash, confident, self–possessed image of Watson portrayed in his earliest autobiographical effort “Honest Jim” (published as The Double Helix). Those who know him present the picture of Watson as an oddly brilliant and eventually powerful scientist with nearly hagiographic fervor. But readers may enjoy the occasional warm–hearted dig at this icon of twentieth–century molecular biology, such as Renato Dulbecco’s recollection of Watson raiding his laboratory in order to start the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. If The Double Helix offered us a window into the emotional and psychological world of scientific ambition (and success), this volume serves to enrich that perspective...”
      —Journal of the History of Biology

review:  “The laboratory press now releases consistently high–quality and lucrative books in the field of genetics. Inspiring Science is a testament to the quality of the press; it is well illustrated and tastefully laid out....Inspiring Science gives us a collection of revealing glances at one of the most remarkable and well-known, yet enigmatic figures of our time.”
      —Chemical Heritage