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  • Would You Buy James Watson’s Tainted Nobel Prize Medal?

Would You Buy James Watson’s Tainted Nobel Prize Medal?

Dec 21 2014 Read 2688 Times

Back in 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James Watson, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. The trio picked up the prestigious accolade for their discovery of the helical structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and how this manifested itself in living forms. Now, just over half a century later, the second of the three medals is being auctioned off by its owner.

A common misconception about this particular award is that Watson, Crick and Wilkins actually discovered DNA. In reality, the knowledge of DNA had been around for many years; instead, the trio were integral in pinning down its exact structural makeup. To read more about the intricacies of the discovery of DNA structure, please see this article: DNA Technology: 150 Years of Research and Development.  

A Flagging Reputation

Watson, who along with Crick used the data collated by Wilkins and unsung heroine Rosamund Franklin to prove their theoretical model of the double helix, has often been castigated for what some see as exploitation of Wilkins’ and Franklin’s work. In 2007, his reputation took a further significant blow when he made some controversial remarks linking race to intelligence to the Sunday Times.

Discussing African people, Watson confessed he was “inherently gloomy” about the fact that “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 went on to clarify his remarks by saying: “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Since then, his remarks have earned him a significant backlash, forcing him to step down as Chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York and effectively retire from public life. Since he had relied on speaking engagements for a significant part of his income, he has been forced to seek monetary revenues by auctioning off his legacy.

Selling a Tainted Past

When the medal goes for auction this week, it will be the first time a winner has parted with his medal while still alive. There is precedent from the sale of medals in the past – including Watson’s co-partner on the DNA research, Crick – though these have all occurred posthumously.

In 2012, Crick’s family sold his medal for a reported £1.3 million, while a handwritten letter sent to his son explaining the discovery was sold for a remarkable £4 million. This surpassed Abraham Lincoln’s missive as the most expensive letter sold at auction – though it appears that Watson’s medal will fetch a higher price than Crick’s did two years previously.

With a reserve of £1.6 million placed on the medal and as much as £2.2 million expected, the sale will certainly alleviate the financial constraints placed on Watson. However, the integrity of its former owner has been severely compromised. In his own words, the controversy has made him feel like “an unperson” who “no one really wants to admit exists”.

Whether or not people are prepared to admit he exists on a personal level, they will certainly be willing to acknowledge his existence scientifically. Auctioneer Francis Wahlgreen does not expect the controversy to affect the bidding in the slightest, claiming: “There are a lot of personalities in history we’d find fault with, but their discoveries transcend human foibles.”

Would such an unpalatable foible deter you from buying the medal?

Image Source: James Watson
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Dec 21 2014

This is old news! Dr. Watson's Nobel Prize Medal was sold weeks ago for over US$4 million.

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