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DNA Pioneer Watson's Nobel Prize Sells For $4.75 Million

The 1962 Nobel Prize Medal in Medicine or Physiology that James Watson won has been sold at auction.
The 1962 Nobel Prize Medal in Medicine or Physiology that James Watson won has been sold at auction.

The Nobel Prize medal that James Watson won for helping explain how DNA is structured has a new owner, as the 1962 gold medal was bought for more than $4.75 million at auction Thursday. Watson has said he'll donate much of the money to educational institutions.

The identity of the winning bidder, who participated by phone, has not been revealed.

The first-ever sale of a Nobel prize by a living recipient follows a new period of controversy for Watson, 86, who's been accused of both racism and sexism, dating back to the exclusion of scientist Rosalind Franklin from the acclaim his research team garnered for discovering that DNA's structure is a double helix. (An NPR interview with Watson touched on that story.)

The criticism was most severe, however, in 2007, when Watson said the intelligence of some races, such as people of African descent, was limited. The comments brought wide criticism, and Watson later apologized.

Against that backdrop, many observers see Watson's sale of the Nobel as either "a quest for redemption" (The New York Times) or "sticking his tongue out at the scientific establishment." (Slate)

We'll note that both of the Nobel medals that Watson and famous partner, Francis Crick, were awarded have now been sold. The family of Crick, who died in 2004, auctioned his medal last year, for $2.27 million.

If you're wondering what the medals are made of, Christie's explains:

"Prior to 1980 the Nobel Prize medal was made from 23 carat gold, but since then Nobel Prize medals are made of 18 carat green gold plated with 24 carat gold. The diameter of the Nobel Prize medal is 66 mm but the weight and thickness varies with the price of gold. The average Nobel Prize medal is 175 g with a thickness ranging from 2.4-5.2 mm."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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