Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dr. James Watson to me, May 2004: 'They say I'm a killer'

In light of Dr. James Watson's recent fall from grace and the revelation that Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer requested $900,000 in taxpayer funds for his lab, it seems like a good time to republish the story of my run-in with the DNA pioneer.

The following post originally appeared May 13, 2004:

Last night, at a formal event at New York City's elegant Hotel Pierre, I was introduced to Nobel laureate Dr. James D. Watson, who, along with Dr. Francis Crick, discovered the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule.

I was introduced to the gaunt, aged legend by another scientist, who proceeded to tell Watson about his biomedicals company, which funded work in the genetics field.

Watson interrupted him: "Is your company geared towards research or service?"

The scientist paused for a second, taking in the unusual question. "Research," he answered.

"That's the problem with these companies today!" the Nobel laureate erupted. "Everyone's doing research in genetics and nobody's doing service. Because it's too controversial"—he sneered—"to help mothers so that they can give birth to healthy babies."

My mouth was open wide enough for flies to come in. I was taken aback at the sheer rudeness of the outburst—to see an esteemed scientist speak to an admiring colleague that way. Even worse, I couldn't believe the swiftness with which Watson almost immediately turned the conversation toward his obsession. And I was kicking myself for having forgotten what that obsession was, after reading about it when it hit the newswires nearly a year ago.

Still, if you read a seemingly sensationalistic story on the Web site of an advocacy organization*, you tend to take it with a grain of salt. Call me naive, but I couldn't have conceived the depth of Watson's conviction about the extinguishing of "undesirables" if I hadn't heard it from the legend himself and—I'm very sad to say—seen the expression on his face. I'm afraid it is no coincidence that Watson's institute is based at the same Cold Spring Harbor laboratory where Charles Davenport conducted his sickening, Carnegie-funded eugenics experiments.

"They say I'm a killer," Watson went on, his tired eyes taking on fire. "It's those right-to-lifers."

"They say I'm a killer," he repeated, "and everyone's afraid of offending them." He was still looking at the other scientist. The scientist, whom I know didn't share his views, maintained an attentive silence—partly, I believe, out of gentlemanly respect, and partly out of not wanting to put gasoline on a fire.

But I had nothing to lose. So I took a deep breath, adjusted my jaw so it was back in line with my upper lip, and said, in the gentlest voice I could muster, "I'd love to know more about why you feel that way, as I'm a right-to-lifer myself."

Watson looked me in the eye and told me he was qualified to advocate in favor of mothers choosing to abort "unhealthy" children because he wished he could have aborted his own son, who is mentally handicapped.

He went on, unprodded, to say that he was an "unbeliever," so he was sure he would have had no moral qualms about killing his own child.

It was the same horrible sentiment he expressed to the Australian paper The Age last year:

Declaring "I'm not a sadist", the man who co-discovered DNA said that parents, especially mothers, should have a right of genetic veto over the make-up of their child.

"Any time you can prevent a seriously sick child from being born, it is good for everyone," Dr Watson told The Sunday Age. "Most mothers wouldn't want to have dwarfs."....

He says he has never seen a soul in a test tube.
There was no way that I could argue with him—it wasn't the time or place, and I don't believe I could have swayed him. But I'm sure he could see the emotions on my face—the desire to be respectful, mingled with stifled horror and pity.

I could only wonder what would make someone whose work had brought so much healing decide that the best way to prevent sickness is to kill people.

TRACKBACKS (May 2004):

*This link, which has gone dead since I wrote the original blog entry, led to an article on an ultraconservative Web site accusing Watson of being a eugenicist.