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“Wrong to Toast”: Broad’s Lander Sorry for Tribute to DNA Pioneer Watson

Xconomy Boston — 

Amid backlash, renowned geneticist Eric Lander, the Broad Institute president and founding director, apologized today for his toast over the weekend to DNA structure co-discoverer James Watson (pictured) on the occasion of Watson’s 90th birthday.

Watson has not been shy about expressing racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist views over the years. For example, in a 2007 interview in the U.K.’s Sunday Times he questioned the intelligence of Africans; in his memoir about the discovery of the DNA double helix, he belittled the contributions—and appearance—of Rosalind Franklin, the x-ray crystallographer whose work was critical to the discovery.

Lander’s toast took place with Watson and several others on stage at the Biology of Genomes conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the institute on New York’s Long Island that suspended Watson, then chancellor, in 2007 over his remarks in the Sunday Times. (Watson retired days later; the institute’s Watson School of Biological Sciences remains.)

In his onstage tribute, Lander described Watson as “flawed” but made no specific mention of Watson’s views. Scientists then took to Twitter to express outrage, disappointment, and a bit of self-reflection.

In a tweet posted around noon today, Lander apologized, saying his “brief comment about [Watson] being ‘flawed’ did not go nearly far enough” and that Watson’s “views are abhorrent: racist, sexist, anti-Semitic.”

In a short letter emailed subsequently to the Broad community, Lander also noted that he has been “the personal target” of Watson’s anti-Semitism. “In retrospect, I should have followed my first instinct, which was to decline the invitation. As someone who has been on the receiving end of his abhorrent remarks, I should have been sensitive to the damage caused by recognizing him in any way. People who have called this out are correct. I was wrong to toast, and I’m sorry.”

A Chicago native, Watson was the director of Cold Spring from 1968 to 1994. From 1988 to 1992, he was the first director of the National Institutes of Health’s Human Genome Project. He had his own genome sequenced in 2007.

It’s the second time in three years that Lander has faced a storm of criticism within the scientific community. In 2016, the journal Cell published Lander’s essay “The Heroes of CRISPR” in which, critics charged, he gave fuller credit to Broad Institute scientists and downplayed the contributions of Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier and others to the birth of the gene editing system that has changed biomedical research. The Broad was, and still is, battling Doudna and Charpentier over the invention of CRISPR. Lander’s essay carried no disclosure about the fight or the Broad’s stake in it.

Lander could not be immediately reached for comment.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson via Creative Commons 2.0 license.