However broke "the father of DNA" actually was before this week, he's now almost $5 million less broke than that.
James Watson, known for his contributions to the discovery of DNA's double-helix shape, announced his intention to sell his Nobel prize earlier this week. He told the media he was selling his prestigious award -- even though no recipient has ever done so (though several have been sold posthumously) -- because he'd been shunned from most academic circles, and lost income as a result.
The $4.1 million sale of the 23-carat gold prize (supplemented by the auction of Watson's Nobel acceptance speech for $365,000 and a manuscript of a lecture he gave the day after receiving the award for $245,000) beats last year's sale of Watson's late collaborator Francis Crick's award for $2.27 million to a Chinese biotech mogul.
While Watson expressed interest in buying a painting with the proceeds, he's also giving a large portion to the institutions where he's studied and worked -- The University of Chicago, Indiana University, Cambridge, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He'd hoped to pay for a new gymnasium for Cold Spring Harbor, claiming that exercise has made him a better scientist, but apparently would have needed a $10 million sale to accomplish that.
Watson's 2007 gaffe, when he seemed to claim that some races were inherently less intelligent than others, wasn't the slip-up of a doddering old man, many say -- he's always had some pretty racist (and sexist) views.
As Laura Helmuth wrote for Slate, Watson now has a formidable list of cringe-worthy incidents on his resume: He failed to credit Rosalind Franklin at the time of the double helix discovery, despite her vital contributions, and his views on women in science haven't changed much since: At a science conference in 2012, he reportedly said that "I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they're probably less effective." And even back in the '50s, fellow Harvard professor E. O. Wilson once wrote, Watson was the "Caligula of biology."
In case you're not up on your Roman history, the emperor Caligula was a noted sadist who considered himself a deity -- and is rumored to have committed incest and had his favorite horse named as his consul. In other words, E. O Wilson made a harsh dig, indeed.
Because the buyers -- one of whom bought the Nobel prize itself, and the other who bought both of the documents up for auction -- are anonymous, we can't know whether the scientist's notoriety contributed to their interest in the sale.