Sixty years ago, he unlocked the mystery of genes, but lately he seems to be more focused on the one that causes mischief.
James Watson, one half of the Watson and Crick pairing who discovered the structure of DNA, left audiences baffled, not by his dizzying knowledge, but by his savaging of the Irish intellect.
Visiting Dublin’s Mater Hospital to open a new cancer and haematology unit, the Nobel prizewinner was quizzed about comments he made in the US last month when he said Irish curse was not alcohol, but ignorance.
What had he meant by that, he was asked. “Your brain is not filled with useful things,” replied the straight-talking Chicago man, who previously caused outrage by claiming black people had an inferior intellectual capacity and a higher libido than white people, and were worse than white people as employees.
“I grew up with that, where the Irish were, you know, not a serious people — blarney, full of blarney,” said Prof Watson. “You can be real dumb or you can seem dumb because you don’t know anything — that’s all I’m saying. The Irish seemed dumb because they didn’t know anything.”
The tenses made all the difference to the tension created by his comments, because the outspoken 85-year-old stressed later that he was talking about the past and in particular his run-in with the former head of the US National Institutes of Health, the late Bernadine Healy.
Healy, a third generation Irish- American, was all for patenting genes when Watson was head of the Human Genome Project in 1992 and Watson, who described the idea as “sheer lunacy”, quit.
More than 20 years later, the issue is still causing controversy, with the US Supreme Court due to give judgment by June on whether patenting should be outlawed.
Prof Watson’s remarks were curious given his heritage is part Irish, with a grandmother born to an immigrant family from Co Tipperary. He has also said his research and subsequent discovery of the double helix was inspired by the 1944 book This Is Life by physicist Erwin Schrodinger, who had joint Austrian-Irish citizenship and wrote the famous work during the 17 years he taught in Dublin.
However, Prof Watson stressed Ireland and the Irish had changed and he had intended no offence. “I made a joke, that’s all,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with the Irish — I just didn’t like Bernadine Healy. I never kick people when they’re down — I tell jokes when they’re up.”
Up is exactly how Prof Watson found his hosts at the Mater, where met some patients whose treatments stem from his ground- breaking 1953 discovery.
The 33-bed cancer and haematology unit, the first in the country to provide individual rooms with filtered air systems to reduce risk of infection, was declared by Watson to be among the best he’d visited in the world.
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