The University of Illinois has cancelled plans to host a talk by Nobel Laureate James Watson after faculty raised concerns about his views on race and intelligence.
Carl Woese Institute for Genomic Biology director Gene Robinson told The News-Gazette the center dropped plans to host the scientist before a date had even been set.
Watson, 89, co-discovered the structure of DNA.
Robinson said Watson initially reached out to the institute to give a “narrowly focused scientific talk” about his cancer research in conjunction with a planned visit to a colleague’s lab. Robinson said he wasn’t surprised by faculty members’ reaction.
“We tried to consider this very carefully in going forward, and different perspectives on the possibilities of him giving a science-based lecture,” he said. “With respect to his past, the email that I sent out stated very clearly that we didn’t condone any of his past comments, racist comments and sexist comments. And we noted that he had apologized and thought about all those very carefully.”
Watson is a molecular biologist and geneticist who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA in 1953 with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin. Watson and Crick later shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology. Franklin wasn’t eligible after his death in 1958.
Watson’s most notable racially insensitive comments were made during a book tour in 2007, when he told the Sunday Times of London 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.”
Watson apologized, saying he did not mean to characterize Africans as genetically inferior but that he was referring to geographically separated populations evolving differently.