Father to Son
By James D. Watson

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Father to Son   Truth, Reason and Decency

By James D. Watson

Excerpts from Father to Son

  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Afterword

Table of Contents


Introduction, vii

Acknowledgments, xi

Foreword, xiii

Chapters and Quotes

My father, James Dewey Watson (b. 1897), through both his father, Thomas Tolman Watson (b. 1876), and his mother, Nellie Dewey Ford (b. 1875), descended from ambitious, hard-working settlers who moved west to seek more fulfilling lives as Midwesterners than they would have had they remained at the Eastern sites of their births.

1 Going for Gold, 1

Despairing of ever having the financial means to give his own children as well as his father secure futures, Ben saw the finding of gold in California as the way to end his financial uncertainty and quickly incorporated a company of 10 investors to let him lead a group of men across the western plains to the steep western slopes of the California Sierra Mountains where the first big gold strike took place. Although he never found much gold by himself, he was soon earning $700 per month providing supplies to the actual miners. Away for less than two years, he returned to Springfi eld modestly rich. Only a fraction of his new money was needed to let his and his father's store soon become Springfield's fanciest confectionery store, Watson Saloon.

2 Tolman's Fateful Plunge, 31

My father, James Dewey Watson, known to all his friends as Jim Watson, was born on December 13, 1897, in the iron ore town of Eveleth, Minnesota, near the center of the Mesabi Range, some 60 miles north and east of Minnesota's Lake Superior port city of Duluth. A year earlier Thomas Tolman, his father, had moved to the Range soon after his around 1895 marriage at age 20 in Lake Geneva to the similarly aged Nellie Dewey Ford. How Tolman might best carve out a future business life that would support his growing family then was not obvious. Joining his father, William Weldon Watson III (WWWIII), in the resort hotel business stopped being in the cards once he was no longer the proprietor of the Whiting House. Common sense dictated that his father devote virtually all of his non-gold mine efforts to exploiting his seemingly instinctive capacity to spot good real estate deals in the Chicago area

3 The Kirtland's Warbler (1920-1924), 53

Exactly how long back into his past Dad broke with his Republican Party-orientated father and brothers in becoming a Democrat I do not remember. When Franklin Roosevelt became President on March 4th, 1933, Dad was already an impassioned exponent of social activism, believing that without governmental intervention those without jobs and their families had very grim fates.

4 Roosevelt Democrats (1925-1942), 89

Soon after I started my 1942-1943 sophomore year at South Shore High School, Mother and Dad began dreaming that it might be my last year there. They wanted me to move on to a brand-new program at the University of Chicago (U of C) that admitted qualified students after two years of high school. Though I was just one of several bright South Shore students, I was its most voracious reader of books and would most profi t by being accepted into its second class. Our family, however, could not cover the tuition of 100 dollars a quarter and my going there depended on my being awarded a full tuition scholarship

5 Ideas (Great Books) over Facts (Textbooks) (1943-1952), 119

Once he began twice-daily, uninterrupted, hour-long commutes to and from the Loop on the "South Shore," Dad had even more hours for reading books and magazines. Always close to his heart were the seminal ideas at the heart of the liberal education experience. Soon Dad and Mother formed friendships with like-minded neighbors who also took pleasure in ideas and called themselves "polymathics." Roughly once a month, they came together for after-dinner talks in the Sunset Hill home of Colonel Robert Heffron Murray, nearby Valparaiso's most public-spirited citizen, who was born in Chicago in 1881 and educated as a chemist at the University of Chicago.

6 Liberals at Play (1953-1957), 151

I was just starting my life as an Assistant Professor of Biology at Harvard, living in a one-room apartment carved out of a large wooden home on Francis Avenue, less than 1,000 feet from my lab and offi ce on nearby Divinity Avenue. Over the past Christmas holiday, I had gone back to England to be with Naomi and Dick Mitchison's family at their Kintyre home on the west coast of Scotland. When going off I felt guilty that I had not chosen to be with Dad and Mother in northern Indiana. But I still had more close friends in England than at Harvard, and being with their similarly aged Mitchison sons, Murdoch and Avrion, and daughter Lois would almost compensate for my lack of a suitable girl to share my life with. Moreover, I had every reason to believe that Mother and Dad fi nally had the life they had long wanted. Sadly, it was to last for only four more months.

7 Life without Jean (1957-1959), 165

Dad started living in 10-1/2 Appian Way in October 1959 when the second Eisenhower term had only a little more than a year to end. Though 10-1/2 Appian Way started out as a tiny stable that turned into an equally small, two-story residence, it was large enough to house most of the key possessions from his and Mother's Tremont home. Late in October Dad again had at his fi ngertips the key books, magazines, and clippings of his past. Though Dad had an almost Eisenhower-like profi le, with the resemblance oft noticed, his political leanings never let him even occasionally warm up to Ike's presidency. Only through positive government intervention did Dad believe our country had a real chance to let all its citizens have a meaningful life. The Americans Dad then most admired were Adlai Stevenson and his foremost supporter Eleanor Roosevelt. Each represented for Dad the highly intelligent mind working for social and economic enhancement of all Americans independent of race or creed.

8 New Frontier Morphs into Vietnam (1959-1965), 183

As the summer merged into the early fall, Dad and I nervously awaited the mid-October 1962 announcement of the new Nobel Prizes. While giving some lectures in Harvard in mid-February, Francis Crick told me in great secrecy that Jacques Monod had been asked by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, whose leading professors select the winners of the Medicine or Physiology Prize, to write in behalf of our candidacy. Though told not to reveal his recommendation, upon recently seeing Francis, Jacques could not resist the temptation to tell him that we were being considered for the next prize. In turn, I told Dad, saying only that he in Cambridge, Massachusetts, should know.

9 More Than Good Manners (1966-1968), 207

If he had not begun to smoke at Oberlin and all through his World War I time in France, Dad might well have lived, like his brother Bill, into his early nineties. Then he would have had the joy of seeing that both Betty and I had chosen mates who not only shared his passion for books but who also took pleasure in creating new ones. I now look back to my good fortune in having Dad pass on to me his lifelong quest for truth, reason, and decency.

Afterword, 239


1 James Dewey Watson Genealogy, 243

2 Sources, 255

Picture Credits, 279

Index, 283


Several years ago, in transferring personal Watson family papers to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives, I carefully looked for the first time at the contents of some 30 file folders that became mine after Dad died during the summer of 1968.

Most of Dad's file folders were filled with articles clipped from newspapers and magazines about long-admired writers of literature and liberal politics. Several more personal files, however, caught my serious attention. One contained some 30 letters he wrote back to his family while in 1918-1919 wartime service in France. Another contained descriptions of some 15 bird walks he made to observe the beginnings of the spring migration during the late winter and early spring of 1914. Then he was a junior at Lyon County High School in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange, some 15 miles southwest of Chicago's Loop. Likely also of importance to Dad was an essay exam for his freshman bible class at Oberlin College. What he then had learned likely converted him from the Episcopal faith of his parents to being an agnostic for the rest of his life. Other folders contained diary pages on which he wrote down details of his regular sea journeys abroad after my mother Jean died in the spring of 1957. Particularly revealing are his near end of life impressions of the fellow guests he spent several winters with in a small upper-middle-class resort south of Sarasota, Florida. The genteel world that he had been born into was then not at all what he wanted from life.

In finding that Dad had been a natural, high-quality writer since his high school days, I first considered preparing a small private book containing most of his writings for distribution to Watson family members. Soon, however, I realized that Dad's documents would become much more useful if I wrote accompanying sections that described my father's activities during successive stages of his life. Originally I saw the need for five such chapters. By now there are nine, each enriched by personal details about key intellectuals he knew through their writings or teachings or through personal contact. The educator, Robert Hutchins, first came into Dad's life when they were both Oberlin College freshmen.

Most rewarding for me to put together has been Chapter 1, which I start in Springfield, Illinois. My own branch of Watsons there put down their first solid Midwestern roots. The homes of William Weldon Watson and his son, Benjamin, were located in close proximity to Abraham Lincoln's for more than 20 years. The first Springfield-rooted Watsons were exceptional frontier entrepreneurs who took great risks to give themselves and their families' children the opportunity to aim for the top of late-19th-century Midwestern life. To give his and his father's "Watson & Son Confectionery" sufficient capital to grow, Benjamin A. Watson saw no alternative but to join the California Gold Rush of 1848-1850. In so doing, he left behind his pregnant wife Emily and their year-old son William Weldon Watson III. I would not now be putting together this book if he had not come back sufficiently cash-flush to also let him subsequently build the Midwest's first post-Civil War truly grand mineral springs resort nestled in Perry Springs near the Illinois River between Springfield and St. Louis. Nor would his first son, William Weldon Watson III, have opened on Dearborn Street Chicago's first French restaurant in 1882. Already by then WWWIII was proprietor of the Whiting House, the then-great resort on the shores of Wisconsin's Lake Geneva, just across the Illinois border and then-preferred site for wealthy Chicago residents to escape the blistering heat that dominated most of Chicago summers. WWWIII with his wife and six children lived outside of town on a farm that let them continue to think of themselves as part of the frontier.

Dad's later more cautious approach to risk taking is easily explained by his having no desire to repeat his father's disastrous failure to find gold on the penny stock market. Equally important may have been the calming influence of his conservative, churchgoing mother, Nellie Dewey Ford, whose grandparents' oil portraits have long dominated our Cold Spring Harbor home's front hallway. Their stern faces suggest that life was rough and tough for those new frontiersmen and -women carving out permanent existences on the lands where prior Indianan bands never themselves had ever seen fit to put down their own roots.

—James D. Watson


In looking back to what factors most made possible my unquestionable position as one of today's most successful biologists, I rank the most important my close relationship with my Dad. It started in 1938 when at age 10 my legs had become sufficiently long to let me routinely accompany him on bird-watching trips to nearby Jackson Park. While my subsequent university education at the University of Chicago made me start serious thinking, it could not have given me by itself the intellectual and emotional depth of a serious 25- (if not 30-) year old when I was only 20. Talking to Dad about serious adult matters was even more important. So while I grew up without a trace of any of the childhood precocity that very early on dominated the life of my distant cousin, Orson Welles, by the end of my first year as a graduate student at Indiana University I had all the essential trappings of the mature intellectual. I knew what was important and as much as possible did not spend even brief moments with those of lesser intellectual bent.

Growing up during the economic depression of the 1930s and watching the rise of Adolf Hitler likely propelled me into the ranks of serious adulthood much faster than if I had grown up during the earlier Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover presidencies. But that a Franklin Roosevelt presidency was a necessity and not a luxury for the United States' future would not have so dominated my adolescent days had not Dad passed on to me the societal goals of his once well-to-do father's Republican Party's last great president Theodore Roosevelt: The rich had to begin being taxed to redistribute monies to the poor, the monopolistic Standard Oil Trust had to be broken up into truly competing corporations, and our country's vast wilderness regions had to be saved for all future Americans. Most important to Dad were the nearby Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in which the rare Piping Plover still nested.

Dad in no way tried to stop me when I would argue with any adult who revealed himself as a Franklin Roosevelt hater or Hitler-favoring isolationist. The world was in too bad a shape to let such nonsense go unquestioned. Listening to the evening's radio wartime news was always of high priority. Evening meals never occurred at the expense of not knowing as soon as possible who was winning the latest battle. By the age of 11, I had stopped going to the Catholic masses of my grandmother knowing by then that Dad did not believe in any form of God. Soon he also let me know there was no value gained by arguing with either school friends or adults about religion even though there was no evidence for the existence of gods of any form. As the overwhelming majority of Americans still so believed in God, there was no point of ever directing my life into the public arena of politics where godless societies were spoken of with horror and disgust.

Just as I now have no memories of ever even mildly disagreeing with Dad about anything important, I remember equally well much liking my mother, who only on Easter or Christmas went to Mass and was never dominated by equally irrational pursuits like astrology or quack medicines. But in contrast to Dad, who clearly preferred reading about ideas than talking to ordinary people, Mother was inherently a people person with the capacity to politely put up with all Americans be they Democrat or Republican or educated or uneducated. Clearly making my mother much liked was her stable optimism about the future. In this regard, I was also more emotionally like my mother than my dad for whom bad news frequently led to lengthy depressive thoughts. My unanticipated, shockingly early big success with DNA, of course, much reassured Dad and Mother. After Mother died in 1957 of a childhood rheumatic fever-damaged heart, I was by then making sufficient money to help Dad live a modestly comfortable life. My sister's marriage also had reason to give him much comfort. Her husband, Bob Myers, was not, as we earlier feared, a Republican but a well-educated, Indiana-born Democrat immersed in the reality of high-powered foreign policy.

How much I also owe my success to the fact that my ancestors likely made many more good marriages than bad and were inherently much more optimistic about their futures than the facts of the time dictated is not now answerable. On the other hand, the writings of my father as evidenced through this book's pages leave little doubt of his high intelligence and ability to write clearly in the English language. Most certainly I didn't emerge from nowhere!

—James D. Watson
21 February 2014

Father to Son © 2014 published by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press