Scientist Watson quits post after race remarks

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nobel prize winner James Watson, renowned for describing DNA’s structure, quit on Thursday as chancellor of a leading U.S. research facility after being quoted as questioning Africans’ intelligence.

James D. Watson, co-discoverer of the DNA helix and father of the Human Genome Project, speaks at the Baylor College of Medicine's Human Genome Sequencing Center in Houston in this May 31, 2007 file photo. Watson has quit as chancellor of a leading U.S. research facility after questioning the intelligence of Africans, the laboratory said on Thursday. REUTERS/Richard Carson/Files

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory said Watson, 79, retired after nearly 40 years of serving the institution, located in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. He served as president of the laboratory until 2003 and since then had served as chancellor.

“Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue. The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired,” Watson said in a statement provided by the laboratory.

Watson said he is retiring immediately from his position as chancellor as well as his post on the laboratory’s board.

The laboratory said last week its board had suspended Watson from his duties following his remarks to a British newspaper.

“For over 40 years, Dr. Watson has made immeasurable contributions to the laboratory’s research and educational programs,” Eduardo Mestre, chairman of the board of the laboratory, said in a statement.

“The board respects his decision to retire at this point in his career,” he added.

The laboratory’s statement announcing his resignation did not mention the controversy over Watson’s comments.

In an interview published in the October 14 edition of The Sunday Times, Watson was quoted as saying he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa.”

“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 was quoted as saying.

Watson shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Francis Crick and Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins for the description of the double helix structure of DNA. He had been associated with the laboratory since 1948.

In the aftermath of the published remarks, Watson told an audience in London: “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.”

Laboratory President Bruce Stillman said on October 17 that the board, leadership and faculty of the institution “vehemently disagree” with Watson’s statements “and are bewildered and saddened if he indeed made such comments.”

Fellow scientists condemned Watson’s comments. The Federation of American Scientists called them “noxious.” In the days after his remarks were published, Watson cut short a book tour in Britain and returned to the United States.

In his statement on Thursday, Watson said, “As an educator, I have always striven to see that the fruits of the American Dream are available to all. I have been much blessed.”

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a private research and education institution whose scientists study molecular biology and genetics to gain insight into cancer, neurological diseases and other maladies.