Watson talks in sputters and clicks, and delights in being outrageous, as I discovered when I visited him in Cold Springs Harbor for my book, “Masterminds: Genius, DNA and Quest to Rewrite Life.” Ushered into an office where his Nobel prize hung close by a girly calendar featuring a buxom woman that looked more appropriate for a mechanics shop, he was soon informing me that some people are born with less intelligence than others – and that those people should have their genes altered, if such a thing becomes possible. At the same meeting he called surreal painter Salvador Dali (he painted “Homage to Watson and Crick” in 1963) a fascist, denigrated women scientists as being more “difficult” than men and refused yet again to acknowledge that a long dead geneticist named Rosalind Franklin made a crucial discovery leading to Watson and Crick’s famous discovery.
Anyone who has worked with him has a Watson story about his imperiousness. Yet he also was a major player in a number of scientific efforts over the decades, not the least of which was his crucial backing of the Human Genome Project in the early 1990s. He was appointed as the first head of the project in 1990 – only to be fired in 1992 after he insulted then director of the National Institutes of Health, Bernadine Healy, and refused to follow her directions and those of Congress.