Why the Scientist Who Unravelled DNA Is Selling His Nobel Prize

James Watson, who has been shunned by the academic community for his racist remarks, is putting his award up for auction.

Markus Schreiber/AP

Update 12/04/2014: James Watson's 1962 Nobel Prize for the discovery of DNA's double helix sells for $4.1 million at auction, above its expected selling range of $2.5-3.5 million. Two additional sets of documents belonging to Watson, his original Nobel banquet speech and Nobel lecture manuscript, both sold within their estimated amounts,  for $300,000 and $200,000, respectively.

James Watson, the famed molecular biologist and co-discoverer of DNA's molecular structure, is putting his Nobel Prize up for auction. This sad final chapter to his career traces back to racist remarks he made in 2007, which led to his fall from scientific grace.

Watson is best known for his work deciphering the DNA double helix alongside Francis Crick in 1953. The discovery revolutionized biochemistry and earned the pair and their colleague, molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins, the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. But in 2007 Watson made an incendiary remark regarding the intelligence of black people that lost him the admiration of the scientific community.

That year, The Sunday Times quoted Watson as saying that he felt “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” He added that although some think that all humans are born equally intelligent, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Watson’s remarks ignited an uproar. He had to retire from his position as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Sold-out gatherings in his honor were cancelled. Academic centers uninvited him for lectures. His peers condemned him: “He has failed us in the worst possible way. It is a sad and revolting way to end a remarkable career,” said Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists. His competitors debunked him: “Skin color as a surrogate for race is a social concept not a scientific one,” Craig Venter, the scientist who raced Watson to sequencing the human genome, said to the BBC in 2007. “There is no basis in scientific fact or in the human genetic code for the notion that skin color will be predictive of intelligence.”

James Watson's Nobel Prize for discovering DNA is up for auction following his fall from grace. (Christie's)

Though outrageous, Watson’s statements were not his first comments to create a public outcry. He had a history of making racist and sexist declarations, according to Time. His insensitive off-the-cuff remarks include saying that sunlight and dark skin contribute to “Latin lover” libido, and that fat people lack ambition, which prevents them from being hired. To many scientists his gravest offense was not crediting Rosalind Franklin—his female collaborator—with helping him deduce the structure of DNA (while often sharing his distaste in her appearance).

But now after many years, Watson’s intellectual hubris has caught up with him and left him an “unperson,” he said to The Financial Times. “No one really wants to admit I exist.”

He said he is selling his prized medallion because he has no income outside of academia, even though for years he had served on many corporate boards. The gold medal is expected to fetch between $2.5 million and $3.5 million when it goes to auction Thursday, according to a statement from the auctioneers Christie’s (Crick’s medal, which was sold last year, went for $2.3 million). Watson said that he will use the money to purchase art and make donations to institutions that have supported him, such as the University of Chicago. But as Watson said, the auction will also offer him the chance to “re-enter public life.”

“I’ve had a unique life that’s allowed me to do things. I was set back. It was stupid on my part,” he said. “All you can do is nothing, except hope that people actually know what you are.” For a man who revealed the twists of DNA, yet also insisted he's “not a racist in a conventional way,” this aspiration may not unravel the way he had hoped.