A million-dollar donation to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory? Doctor Watson, we presume.
And that presumption, of course, is correct: CSHL Chancellor Emeritus James Watson and his wife, Liz, have done it again, donating $1 million to support biomedical research and education at the laboratory, where Watson served as director for decades.
That makes a tidy $5 million donated to CSHL, to date, by Watson, a Chicago-born molecular biologist, zoologist and geneticist who led the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Project for almost three years and shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine for helping to decode the properties of DNA.
The Watsons’ $1 million gift follows the December 2014 sale of Watson’s Nobel Prize medal, which fetched $4.1 million at a Christie’s auction. The gift includes an endowment to support an annual scientific meeting called “Double Helix Day,” commemorating Feb. 28, 1953 – the day Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA’s double-helix structure. The laboratory hosted the first Double Helix Day event on Feb. 27.
Watson said he and his wife “are proud to have been part of CSHL’s tremendous steady growth of more than 45 years.”
“Liz and I came to CSHL in 1968 to revitalize a very rundown biological institution that already had a great impact upon the development of all of modern biology,” the chancellor emeritus said in an April 6 laboratory statement. “By 1994, when I ceased to direct its science and became its first president, the annual budget of CSHL had grown to $45 million, with total employees numbering 609 … supported by an endowment of $35 million.”
Today CSHL employs more than 1,100 people and generates more than $150 million in annual revenue, supported by an endowment of over $400 million.
While the former Harvard University and California Institute of Technology faculty member’s science and generosity are both well-documented, so are his controversies. That December auction marked the first time a living Nobel laureate sold off his or her prize. In 2013, the Crick Family Trust auctioned off Francis Crick’s medal, netting $2.27 million, and other descendants of Nobel laureates have done the same.
Watson was shunned by the scientific community after infamously linking intelligence to race in a 2007 New York Times article, comments that ultimately compelled his resignation as CSHL chancellor and from the lab’s board of directors. He later apologized for those statements. Quotes attributed to the scientist regarding homosexuality, obesity and the sexual prowess of dark-skinned people have also engendered unflattering rebuttals.
Even that 1962 Nobel Prize, which Watson shared with Crick and English physicist Maurice Wilkins, wasn’t without controversy: To construct their double-helix model, Watson and Crick were said to have used – without authorization – critical DNA X-ray diffraction data collected by two English scientists, Wilkins and chemist Rosalind Franklin. Although Wilkins was included as a Nobel laureate, Franklin was not.
Despite his colorful history, there’s no doubting Watson’s scientific contributions, and no denying his financial generosity, which according to CSHL President Bruce Stillman has supported both the laboratory and “Long Island’s biomedical economy.”
“Over the last 45 years, Jim and Liz Watson have made invaluable contributions to CSHL, ensuring the lab’s leadership in contemporary biology and genetics research and education,” Stillman said in a written statement. “We thank the Watsons for their vision and dedication to excellence.”