As Twitter explodes, Eric Lander apologizes for toasting James Watson

Eric Lander in 2016

A day after social media tore into geneticist Eric Lander for toasting James Watson, the co-discoverer of the double helix who in his later years has become known for racist and misogynist views, on his 90th birthday, the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard issued a public apology.

“I was asked to toast James Watson last week … for his role in the Human Genome Project, on the occasion of his 90th birthday,” Lander said in an email to “fellow Broadies” sent just before noon. “People who have called this out are correct. I was wrong to toast, and I’m sorry.”

The toast came on Saturday evening, at the Biology of Genomes meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where Watson served as director before being forced to step down in 2007 after suggesting to a British newspaper that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. “I was conflicted about whether to do it,” Lander said in his email, which he sent after Twitter exploded with criticism of him the day before. “I ultimately agreed to accommodate the request. But it was the wrong decision.”

Lander, co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former leader of the Human Genome Project, called Watson’s views “abhorrent,” characterizing them as “sexist, racist, and anti-Semitic.”

Read more: Why Eric Lander morphed from science god to punching bag

Watson has long been vilified for the work that made him a scientific icon: discovering the double helical structure of DNA. That discovery relied on X-ray diffraction patterns obtained by English chemist Rosalind Franklin of Kings College London, who did not share in the Nobel Prize awarded to Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins in 1962. Although Franklin died in 1958 and Nobels are never awarded posthumously, Watson has long come under fire for minimizing her contributions.

In his later years Watson began spouting offensive views, including saying that exposure to sunlight as in equatorial regions increases sexual urges, that thin people are more ambitious than others, and that the intelligence of people in Africa is “not really” “the same as ours.” In the interview that caused CSHL to fire him, Watson said that people “who have to deal with black employees find this not true,” referring to the fact that there is no biologically based racial disparity in intelligence.

Lander’s mea culpa included the revelation that his own knowledge of Watson’s views “is not secondhand. In addition to hearing him espouse these views, I have been the personal target of some of his anti-Semitic remarks.”

Although in his remarks at CSHL Lander focused on Watson’s role as the first director of the Human Genome Project, and “included a brief comment about his being ‘flawed,’” that aside “did not go nearly far enough,” Lander said in his email. “I’d like to do that now: I reject his views as despicable. They have no place in science, which must welcome everyone. In retrospect, I should have followed my first instinct, which was to decline the invitation. As someone who has been on the receiving end of his abhorrent remarks, I should have been sensitive to the damage caused by recognizing him in any way.”

Much of the vitriol aimed at Lander was reminiscent of that after he wrote a controversial account of the discovery of the CRISPR system of genome editing, which minimized the contributions of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuel Charpentier in favor of the Broad’s Feng Zhang. The criticism revealed the pent-up animosity toward him held by some biologists and others.