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Happy 50th Birthday DNA: Watson, Friends Fete Anniversary in New York

NEW YORK, Feb. 28 - Two interwoven crepe paper strands might make a nice, humble decoration at the 50th birthday party of the double helix tonight, but the real celebration, a black-tie dinner hosted for James Watson and 1,000 or so of his friends at the Waldorf Astoria in New York,will more likely have more formal decor.

 

The invitation-only party caps off a week of more public helix hoopla, including DNA Week in New York, major stories about the 1953 discovery by Watson and Francis Crick in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, as well as more humble events and exhibits around the world.

 

Monday, at the New York Library of Science, Industry and Business, Watson spoke to the crowd assembled to fete the opening of an exhibit entitled, "Seeking the Secret of   Life: DNA in New York.

 

He recounted the moment, on the morning of February 28, 1953, when he and Crick made their discovery at Cambridge: "When we saw the DNA molecule, we thought it was beautiful," he said.

 

The 75 year-old Watson, who has been criticized in recent years for not acknowledging the others who worked on the DNA helix, then went on to offer his belated regrets for not sharing more of the credit.

 

First, he made an apology to that RockefellerUniversityresearcher Maclyn McCarty, who was also speaking at the event, for not having referenced his, Oswald Avery and Colin MacLeod's 1944 demonstration that DNA - not protein - carries hereditary information.

 

"I don't know why we didn't reference your results. Now it seems inexcusable," Watson said, looking at McCarty, who also spoke at the event. "We should have, and I feel bad, because when I went to Europein [19]50 I had no doubt whatsoever. It's not that your results were not as clear as they could be, [but] work from [Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory] in [19]52 confirmed what we knew."

 

Watson also expressed humility at his role in moving science forward, and posthumously credited Rosalind Franklin, upon whose experimental work Watson and Crick's analysis partially rested.

 

"If we hadn't made the discovery, it would have been made by either Wilkins or Rosalind Franklin. It was just waiting to be done," he said. If we didn't exist, science wouldn't have been slowed much, but without the support of Rockefeller, it could have been delayed by a decade."

 

Later, an opening of a DNA art exhibit held at the City University of New York graduate center, Watson admitted that Franklin"was probably brighter than me."

 

Now if only the Nobel committee could have known that.

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