James Douglas Watson CNZM (1943 - 2017)


Every year in the young Jim Watson's hometown of Te Teko in the Bay of Plenty there was the county fair, an event to which every child (and adult) looked forward with great anticipation.

One year his older sister Anne entered the bake stall, spending most of the previous day perfecting her creation, a perfect chocolate slice.

Finding the remnants of this creativity in the kitchen that evening, Jim, aged 10, proceeded to package up the remnants, placing his own name on the entry. You can guess the rest. Jim won the competition, an incensed Anne, came second.

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This episode has been rehashed and argued over during every family event since.

In many ways it sums up Jim entirely and not at all. Every crumb of opportunity was to be seized, every set-back a chance for something new and exciting, yet nobody who knew Jim well would ever argue against his innate honesty, reliability and sense of justice, both privately and professionally.

Dr James (Jim) Watson, founder of New Zealand's first biotech company, Genesis Research and Development, and the cancer research institute Caldera, died on February 13 after a long battle with cancer.

He received his Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to scientific and medical research in 2006 and was a member of the Government's Innovation and Advisory Board from 2001 to 2003.

President of the Royal Society of New Zealand from 2003-2006 and founder of the department of molecular medicine at the Auckland University medical school, Jim faithfully served New Zealand science for most of his adult life.

His passion for science, nurtured at Whakatane High School, led to a PhD in microbiology from the University of Auckland at the very young age of 23. This was followed by a post-doctoral position in the United States.

From the Syntex Research Institute on the Stanford Technology Park campus he went to the prestigious Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, as a research associate in 1969.

Here he would meet and work with the great geneticists and biochemists of the time including his namesake James Watson and colleague Francis Crick (Nobel Prize winners who uncovered the double helix structure of DNA) and Jonas Salk, the discoverer and developer of the polio vaccine.

It was the era of extraordinary discovery in the application and structure of DNA and for a farm boy from Te Teko it was exhilarating.

Jim's first major immunological discovery was the chemical messenger: interleukin 2. It was the gene system which would put him on the scientific map and launched his career.

Married to fellow New Zealander, Margaret, and now with two young boys in tow, he moved from the Salk Institute in 1975 to the department of microbiology in the college of medicine at the University of California at Irvine, where he was promoted to full professor in 1979.

Although his career in the States was flourishing and he had received a generous, prestigious offer to join colleague and friend Steve Gillis at the new Immunex complex, Jim made the difficult (and initially unpopular with his family) decision to return to New Zealand.

Here he founded the department of molecular medicine at the Auckland medical school.

Jim left the medical school in 1994 to found New Zealand's first biotech company, Genesis, which aimed to build a gene technology platform for use in developing health therapeutics and plant products. That was probably Jim's most difficult challenge to date.

Attracting funding and equipment from the United States, where big business was setting up similar companies, meant that he had to travel almost continuously. One year Jim was named as United Airlines second most frequent flyer worldwide.

Genesis had many successful discoveries and later formed two subsidiary companies, BioJoule and Lanzatech, which evolved out of the work of Genesis staff. The latter focused on opportunities in renewable fuels and in displacing petrochemicals.

By the time he stepped down as chief executive of Genesis in 2004, he had managed to raise $200 million for technology and product development, but it still wasn't enough.

Faced with a funding deficit and some unsuccessful vaccine trials, Genesis eventually folded. Jim continued as the managing director of BioJoule Ltd until its sale in 2007.

In 2004 he was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer and given three months to put his affairs in order. To most people this would signal the time to down tools, for Jim it was a great incentive to found a new company researching hormonal cancers.

Caldera was a success and is still operational today.

Caldera investigates not only the biological basis of hormonal cancers, but also the lifestyle practices that can affect it and the effects of medication.

After 12 years and multiple rounds of medication, much of which was experimental, he began to succumb to the cumulative effects of the disease and medication.

He then took on the writing of three books, a family genealogy (a new-found passion), a personal history of his career, A Walk on the Science Side, and finally, Evolution and Energy in Cancer Cells.

Talking about Jim, people say what an amazing teacher and mentor he was and how greatly he inspired them and changed their lives. New Zealand science has lost a great man and his family a wonderful husband, father and grandfather.

* Dr Nicola van Dijk, an academic editor in Canberra, is Jim Watson's daughter-in-law.