He disclosed his decision in a rambling e-mail six days after CSHL suspended him from his duties as chancellor as a result of his “racist” remarks.
“Closer now to 80 than 79, the passing on of my remaining vestiges of leadership is more than overdue,” Watson wrote. “The circumstances in which this transfer is occurring, however, are not those which I could ever have anticipated or desired.”
The lab this morning confirmed Watson’s intention to retire immediately, but did not refer to the circumstances surrounding the move.
“[Watson’s] legacy as a 1962 Nobel Prize laureate for describing the structure of DNA will continue to influence biomedical research for decades to come,” Eduardo Mestre, who is chairman of the board at CSHL, said in today’s statement from the lab. “The Board respects his decision to retire at this point in his career.”
In his letter, Watson discusses his history with CSHL and his Scottish ancestry and “moral values passed on to me by my father,” and said recent events have led him to focus “intensely” on those values.
He also wrote about the effects the Human Genome Project will have on healthcare, particularly mental diseases, and touched on his own family’s history with mental illness.
“Only after we understand [mental diseases] at the genetic level can we rationally seek out appropriate therapies for such illnesses as schizophrenia and bipolar disease,” Watson wrote. “For the children of my sister and me, this moment can not come a moment too soon.
“Hell does not come close to describing the impact of psychotic disorders on human life,” he added, concluding that he has “been much blessed.”
The letter did not mention directly the remarks that ultimately led to his decision to retire. Rather, he wrote that “this week's events focus me ever more intensely on the moral values passed on to me by my father, whose Watson surname marks his long ago Scots-Irish Appalachian heritage; and by my mother, whose father, Lauchlin Mitchell, came from Glasgow and whose mother, Lizzie Gleason, had parents from Tipperary.
In CSHL’s statement, CSHL Director Bruce Stillman said Watson’s “legacy will not only include CSHL and the double helix, but his pioneering efforts that led to the sequencing of the human genome and his innovations in science writing and education."