Fundraising questions after Watson's exit
Five days before an international uproar erupted over comments he had made to a British newspaper, James Watson smiled as camera shutters snapped at the groundbreaking for a multimillion-dollar renovation to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory library.
"Watson raised that money; it was his effort," said Elof Carlson, a former Stony Brook University professor of biochemistry who attended the Oct. 12 ceremony. "He has been a major fundraiser for the institution, and he certainly had enormous skills in doing that."
Now, with Watson forced into early retirement for questioning Africans' intelligence, officials said it remains unclear whether he will continue his lesser known but immensely important role as the laboratory's fundraiser-in-chief.
"I don't think that's been discussed," said Bruce Stillman, president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "This is a great institution. I hope that these events don't affect our fund-raising."
Science observers said Watson's ability to tap rich donors has been compromised.
"People who tend to support these kinds of charities are not going to embrace somebody who now has been branded as a racist," said Wesley J. Smith, a bioethicist at the [Creationist] Discovery Institute in Seattle.
Watson was named director of the laboratory's research projects in 1968. He is celebrated for transforming it from a respectable but sleepy research campus into a prestigious international center for genetic science. His knack for finding the money to pay top talent was key, said Watson biographer Victor McElheny.
When Watson was named president in 1994, the laboratory was raising less than $1 million a year from private donors, financial statements show. By 2006, donors gave more than $43 million.
Those private donations have helped the lab build new buildings and expand its endowment from nothing when Watson took over as director in 1968 to $129 million last year.
"A lot of it is attributable to [Watson]," said Stillman, who added that Watson will keep his home and office at the lab.
Watson appealed to donors with disarming honesty, visible passion and a rumpled unpretentiousness, McElheny said. In the late 1970s, he persuaded Charles Robertson, widower of A&P grocery chain heiress Marie Hartford, to give $8 million to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to bankroll unproven young scientists.
"It was the most precious gift in the history of the laboratory, and Watson swung it," McElheny said.