Science and Tech


DNA Pioneer Sells Nobel After Outrage Over Racist Remarks

One of the scientists who made arguably the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century has auctioned his Nobel medal. Here's why.
Posted at 5:12 PM, Dec 04, 2014

This is James Watson. He's one of the scientists who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, and he's not a very popular guy in the scientific community. 

Despite partaking in one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century, the 86-year-old has isolated himself through a number of controversial comments to the point that he recently described himself as an "unperson." (Video via Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory)   

That was in an interview with The Financial Times about Watson's unusual decision to auction off the Nobel Prize he won for the double-helix discovery.

Watson told the Times he was auctioning it at Christie's in New York because he needed to supplement his income. He was fired from the boards of companies for making comments about intelligence being tied to race. (Video via Christie's)

According to Christie's, the medal went to an anonymous buyer for just more than $4.7 million, exceeding the auction house's estimates, which put it between $2.5 million and $3.5 million.  

And his decision to sell his Nobel medal hasn't gone over too well with some. Slate described him as a peevish bigot and called his auction "a fit of pique and self-pity."

He made his most controversial comments to TheTimes of London in 2007, when he implied testing showed intelligence in Africa was different than "ours," and despite hopes that everyone is equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

Although he apologized for those comments in a way, he attracted criticism again in 2012 for telling a conference in Dublin that while having women around in the scientific community is more fun for men, they're less effective. 

Watson is the first living Nobel laureate ever to auction off his medal. His collaborator, Francis Crick, had his medal auctioned last year following his death for just under $2.3 million. 

In addition to supplementing his income, Watson said he would probably donate some of the money to academic institutions, although he was also interested in buying a David Hockney painting, which can run into the millions of dollars. 

This video includes an image from Getty Images.