Thursday, January 3, 2019

American Masters: “Decoding Watson” (Room 608, Inc.; 13 Productions; PBS, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 10 p.m. I put on the TV to watch the PBS documentary American Masters: Decoding Watson, written, produced and directed by Mark Manucci, on scientist James H. Watson. Watson’s chief claim to fame is that in 1952-53 he worked with British scientist Francis Crick at the Cavendish Laboratories in England, and they solved the problem of the structure of DNA with a deceptively simple solution — the double helix, through which genes replicate because if you have one half of a DNA molecule the other half must be its matching pair. Watson, Crick and Maurice Wilkins, director of the department at Cavendish where Watson and Crick worked, got the Nobel Prize for this discovery in 1962, though a key researcher who found a major piece of evidence that helped them to the answer, Rosalind Franklin (more on her later), got snubbed partly because a Nobel can only cite at most three winners, and partly because the Nobel is never awarded posthumously and by 1962 Franklin had been dead for four years. Watson then got his second run at the brass ring in 1986 when he was put in charge of the Human Genome Project — only to lose that position in the early 1990’s in a public fight with National Institutes of Health director Dr. Bernadine Healy over whether the human genome should be patentable (she said yes, Watson — much to his credit — said no). 

Watson’s career is an alternation between brilliant science and mania: in 1968 he published a bitchy (there’s no other word for it!) memoir of the DNA research called The Double Helix which had relatively nice things to say about his British collaborator Francis Crick (Crick was 34 and working on his home turf, Watson was a rambunctious 24-year-old American who came at least partly to disrupt the place) and vicious, nasty things to say about virtually everyone else: Maurice Wilkins, who ran the lab where Watson was working; Linus Pauling, his great American-based rival (who probably would have been able to solve DNA himself if McCarthyite travel restrictions hadn’t prevented him from going to England and having a look at the Cavendish data), and most appallingly, Rosalind Franklin, whom Watson referred to as “Rosy” (a nickname she hated). In the book “Rosy” comes off as practically a wicked witch — an image of her that’s persisted even in attempts to rehabilitate her reputation against Watson’s attacks (one sympathetic biographer called his book Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA) — mainly because Watson’s interest in women at the time was pretty strictly limited to getting them to have sex with him, and “Rosy” was not only unavailable in that department but unattractive to him (the book drips with sexist comments saying that she should have ditched the glasses, dressed more alluringly and “done something interesting with her hair”) and a scientist so fiercely possessive of her data that Watson practically had to assault her (the jury is still out on whether their confrontation got physically aggressive on either side) to get a look at the famous “Photograph 51,” which gave Watson and Crick the crucial information they needed to crack the puzzle of DNA’s structure. 

One point of contention between them was Franklin’s insistence that DNA could be solved strictly by taking X-ray crystallographic pictures of it, versus Watson’s and Crick’s use of models to see how the atoms could fit together (which Franklin derisively dismissed as “Tinkertoys”) — and ironically it was Franklin’s devotion to crystallography that denied her official recognition as a co-discoverer of DNA’s structure. She died in 1958 at age 37 of cancer, almost certainly brought on by heavy-duty long-term exposure to the X-rays and radiation she used in her work. The show cut back and forth between the search for DNA, Watson’s other research topics, and the controversial comments he made to the London Sunday Times Magazine in 2007 saying that IQ tests proved that Black people are genetically inferior to whites and Asians and anyone who’d employed Black people knew that as a group they were stupider than whites — which got him bounced out of his position as director of the research labs at Cold Spring Harbor and seemed in this presentation to be something like Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitism: a brilliant man using his considerable intellect to justify his stupid prejudices. Watson seems to have been one of those people (like the even more infamously racist William Shockley, inventor of the transistor) who, as brilliant as he may have been in other fields, naïvely accepted the idea that IQ tests actually measure “intelligence.” 

One of the most interesting parts of this show was that Watson may have been both racist and sexist in his personal beliefs but he also gave women and people of color key opportunities to advance in a scientific community that in the 1960’s was still strongly prejudiced against them — though Watson freely admits that one of the reasons he helped women advance in the lab he ran at Harvard University in the 1960’s was he was looking for women who were both intelligent and physically attractive in hopes that he’d find a wife out of it — which he did, marrying an 18-year-old student, Elizabeth Lewis, when he himself was 38. (In today’s political, social and sexual climate, Watson would probably have fallen from grace even sooner than he did because his behavior towards women would have been considered sexual harassment.) The documentary also notes the irony that someone who believes in the power of genes to determine just about every significant part of human nature — one reason he bought into all that long-ago disproven nonsense about whites supposedly being intellectually superior to Blacks and IQ tests as the proof positive of that (IQ tests don’t measure “intelligence” so much as they measure a cultural background and a particular kind of thinking whites and Asians are more likely to have had access to and be adept at than Blacks) — and who married a woman both for her beauty and her brains had two sons, Rufus (who was schizophenic and attempted suicide) and Duncan (who looks like a normal intellectual nerd but rather grimly admitted he doesn’t share the brilliance of his parents. The Watson parents even concede that Rufus drew “a bad hand in the gene pool” even though his dad was the discoverer of the structure of DNA and a key contributor to mapping the human genome, and his mom was also an intellectual and a scientist. “Decoding Watson” was a welcome program even if Watson’s subsequent career — especially the last 25 years of it — tends to illustrate the truth of James Agee’s comment about D. W. Griffith: “He lived too long, and that is one of the few things sadder than dying too soon.”