Science in Mind

Nobel laureate James D. Watson’s old Harvard door lives on at MIT

courtesy of Tyler Jacks
courtesy of Tyler JacksNobel laureate James Watson and MIT professor Tyler Jacks pose in Jacks’ office next to the glass from Watson’s old office door at Harvard University.

A couple months ago, in the middle of an interview at MIT about a new collaboration in cancer research, I noticed something odd on the office wall—a framed piece of glass with the words “D-365 J.D. Watson” written on it.

It turned out the Watson window was a cool artifact of science history that had travelled an unusual path, knitting together the Nobel laureate who co-discovered the structure of DNA, a storage room at Harvard University, a garage in Southborough, and finally, Tyler Jacks, the director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

To find out the origins of the window, Jacks recommended I speak with Huntington Potter, who years ago earned his graduate degree at Harvard. I wrote Potter, now a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, an e-mail asking about the window, and he quickly replied, “I have often wondered what happened to that.”

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When I called Potter, he handed his cellphone over to David Dressler, his former adviser at Harvard who just happened to be sitting next to him in the car.

The “J.D. Watson” of the window was James D. Watson, part of the team that elucidated DNA’s elegant twisting double helix structure and shared the Nobel Prize for it in 1962. Watson worked at Harvard in the “BioLabs” building that today has two rhino statues guarding its entrance. But in the late 1960s he began to spend time at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, eventually moving there full-time, recalled Dressler, a former Harvard professor.

After Watson left, Dressler became the new inhabitant of office D-365, and the window in the door was replaced.

“I took and saved that plate of glass, on purpose, at the time when they replaced it with a piece of glass that looked identical, that had my name on it,” Dressler said. “The room was full of stuff—microscopes, scientific equipment, that type of thing, being stored.”

Tyler Jacks was an ambitious sophomore at Harvard who worked in Dressler’s lab, then focused on leukemia cells. He first spied the glass sitting in a corner of the laboratory, uncelebrated.

By the time Jacks was a senior, Dressler had moved on to Princeton University.

“One other undergrad and I were the final members of the lab to vacate, and we were responsible for cleaning things up,” Jacks said in an e-mail. “Rather than tossing the door glass, I decided to take it to my parents’ house in Southboro, where it sat in their garage for another five years.”

Jacks went to the University of California, San Francisco, to get a graduate degree. When he returned to the East Coast, he said, his parents had framed the glass for him. Now, Jacks, the undergraduate, has become prominent in his own right: a leading cancer researcher.

When Watson recently made a visit to MIT, Jacks showed him the window hanging on his wall. Watson recognized his old door right away, Jacks said, and seemed amused and pleased to see that it had been salvaged. The two scientists took a cross-generational photo in front of it.