Firm friends since double-helix DNA discovery

Dr James Watson (left) and Dr Sydney Brenner at the Sydney Brenner Scientific Symposium and Exhibition, which features Nobel laureate Brenner's journey in science and his major accomplishments.
Dr James Watson (left) and Dr Sydney Brenner at the Sydney Brenner Scientific Symposium and Exhibition, which features Nobel laureate Brenner's journey in science and his major accomplishments.ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

Throughout the course of their six-decade friendship, Nobel laureates James Watson and Sydney Brenner have celebrated each other's scientific feats, and more - the duo once drove through a hurricane together.

It was Dr Watson, 87, who came up with the idea of celebrating Dr Brenner's life in science in Singapore, and suggested it in a letter to President Tony Tan Keng Yam in April.

Dr Brenner, Singapore's first honorary citizen, has helped to shape the Republic's research scene. The 88-year-old is the man behind the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, Singapore's first research institute in biomedical sciences, which has over the years trained more than 250 PhDs and published over 2,000 research papers.


How do you identify explorers? These are people who want to find out something new. That's who you've got to look for.

NOBEL LAUREATE SYDNEY BRENNER, on how to identify exceptional scientists


When we saw the double helix, it confirmed an idea, the idea that had been talked about before but then we showed the idea was right... Over the next 10 years, the idea was confirmed by experiments... We thought that it was too good to be not true.

NOBEL LAUREATE JAMES WATSON, on the discovery of the double-helix DNA structure, which won him and his colleagues, Dr Francis Crick and Professor Maurice Wilkins, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962

Dr Brenner is now a senior fellow at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) and a senior fellow at the Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the United States.

In the letter, Dr Watson said Singapore should host a symposium to honour Dr Brenner. He has had "profound influence" over biological sciences for over 65 years and his work on the worm C. elegans has led to discoveries in all fields of cell and developmental biology, said Dr Watson.

For his work on the worm, Dr Brenner won the Nobel Prize in 2002. It is now used as a standard research model by biologists for studying developmental biology worldwide.

"Sydney has made Singapore the centre of his life for many years and has delighted in fostering scientific research in Singapore," said Dr Watson, chancellor emeritus at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York.

The friendship between the two octogenarians, who were born a year apart, started in April 1953, after Dr Watson had co-discovered, with the late Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, the double-helix or twisted-ladder structure of the DNA.

Dr Brenner had driven from Oxford to Cambridge - about a two-hour journey - just to look at the DNA model. Dr Watson had written previously: "We went for a long walk that day - six hours, as I recall, and the first of many over the years - because there was so much to talk about."

Despite being in different parts of the world - Dr Brenner in Britain and Dr Watson in the US, they stayed in contact, and even formed the RNA Tie Club with others to share ideas on molecular biology.

Dr Watson said he eventually decided to focus on cancer research, which he has been doing for many decades.

"Sydney was always more interested in developmental biology - how does one set of genes account for all the parts of our body, what's the basis of developmental biology... Those are the big questions.

"I chose the cancer one because people don't like to be unhealthy, particularly with cancer," Dr Watson said.

"Both Sydney and I had very exciting lives. Maybe he was a big event in my life because I would have never imagined anyone who had Sydney's ferocious intelligence, just ferocious."

Their friendship also weathered a storm in 2007, when Dr Watson made a remark questioning the intelligence of certain races, causing him to be ostracised by many in the scientific community.

"I think there is no excuse for this," said Dr Brenner. "I mean he might have had a better appreciation of how the world has changed, and how you should keep certain thoughts to yourself."

Dr Watson has since apologised for that incident.

However, it is clear that Dr Brenner sees Dr Watson as more than just a controversial scientist.

He had this to say about their friendship: "I met (Dr Watson) in 1953... and I also worked for many years with Dr Crick. But many of these people are now dead. It's James Watson and I, we are the only survivors of that generation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2015, with the headline 'Firm friends since double-helix DNA discovery'. Print Edition | Subscribe