Father to Son
By James D. Watson

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Father To Son

By James D. Watson

From the Book

  • Foreword
  • Afterword
  • Table of Contents


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

Table of Contents


Introduction, vii

Acknowledgments, xi

Foreword, xiii


1 Going for Gold, 1

2 Tolman's Fateful Plunge, 31

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

4 Roosevelt Democrats (1925-1942), 89

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

6 Liberals at Play (1953-1957), 151

7 Life without Jean (1957-1959), 165

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

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

Afterword, 239


1 James Dewey Watson Genealogy, 243

2 Sources, 255

Picture Credits, 279

Index, 283

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