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Why DNA pioneer James Watson just sold his Nobel Prize for $4.1 million

James Watson in 1993, next to a sketch of the structure of DNA
James Watson in 1993, next to a sketch of the structure of DNA
Daniel Mordzinski/AFP/Getty Images
  • James Watson, who shared a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, auctioned off his medal today for $4.1 million.
  • This is the first time a living Nobel laureate has sold a Nobel Prize medal.
  • Watson has become a controversial figure after making racist comments about intelligence, and he told the Financial Times that he's selling the medal both for money and as an attempt to "re-enter public life."

Why James Watson is so controversial

Watson, who is now 86 years old, did something incredibly important in his early days as a researcher. He helped discover the structure of DNA, one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century. He is a major figure in science.

But Watson also has a history of saying racist and sexist things. And in 2007, at the age of 79, he made some public comments that finally got him shunned by both the scientific community and the general public.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Watson said that he was "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 also said that unequal intelligence has been witnessed by people "who have to deal with black employees."

He later told the AP: "To all those who have drawn the inference from my words that Africa, as a continent, is somehow genetically inferior, I can only apologize unreservedly." However, he seemed less apologetic in a recent interview with the Financial Times: "[The journalist] somehow wrote that I worried about the people in Africa because of their low IQ — and you’re not supposed to say that." He also said that he was "not a racist in a conventional way."

Watson's fall from grace wasn't about just one interview — he had a long record of questionable remarks, as Laura Helmuth catalogued recently in Slate. Those comments include routinely diminishing Rosalind Franklin's contribution to the Nobel-Prize-winning work on DNA and a 2012 statement that women aren't "as effective" at science as men.

The 2007 interview, however, seemed to be the final straw. Soon after that, he was fired from his position as chancellor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (although he's still recognized as chancellor emeritus). And he says he was also fired from the boards of companies and hasn't delivered any public lectures since.

Why Watson wanted to sell his Nobel Prize medal

In his recent interview with the Financial Times, Watson outlined several things that he planned to do with the money from selling his medal. One was to supplement his income, which has fallen after the 2007 scandal.

Christie's auction house had said the lowest price it would accept for the medal is $2.5 million, but started the auction at $1.5 million. The medal went for $4.1 million and some related papers of Watson's went for a combined total of $500,000. Overall, the Watson sale garnered $4.6 million.

Watson also noted that he will give some of the money to academic institutions, like the University of Chicago. And he also said that he would like to buy art, mentioning that he wanted to own a painting by David Hockney.

But the main reason might have nothing to do with money at all. He seems to want to drum up publicity and change how the public views him. He said that "no one really wants to admit I exist" and that he hopes the auction will help him "re-enter public life." Then again, maybe that's not the reason, either. Helmuth interprets the auction as "Watson’s way of sticking his tongue out at the scientific establishment," which certainly seems reasonable.

Further reading:

How the Nobel Prize became the most controversial award on Earth

Should research on race and IQ be banned?

Update: Updated on December 4 with the results of the sale.

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