John Watson (Finding Aid)

John Watson

1940 -

Favorite Color: Lavender/Purple

Favorite Food: Spicy Food

Favorite Time of Year: Mid-May - Mid-June

Favorite Vacation Spot: Zihuatanejo, Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel

Interview Length: 248 minutes

Interview Date(s): March 7, 2011

Interview Location(s): Daly City, California


John Watson states his views and shares his life experiences. He talks about the family background of his mother, Catherine Pauline Berkley, and traces her ancestry back to James Cornelius; his life was chronicled in the 1936 Federal Writers' Slave Narratives Project. James Cornelius served in the Civil War as a servant to his "master" and was hugged by his "master's" wife when he returned to the plantation in Magnolia, Mississippi. Watson describes the secrecy in his family and talks about his mother's life growing up around the "Sundown towns" of southern Illinois.

John Watson shares the family history of his father, Hosea Watson. He can trace his lineage back to his great, great-grandfather, Harrison Watson"one", who was born into slavery around 1820 in Virginia. His son, Harrison Watson "two" , was a blacksmith and a farmer / entrepreneur, and Watson's grandfather, Rev. John Watson, was a free-lance worker and Baptist minister. Watson's father was born in 1917 and moved, with his family, to Chicago, Illinois, at an early age. He later served in World War II and was a career employee of the United States Postal Service. Watson's parents met prior to the War and they had eight children. Watson describes the de-facto segregation in Chicago as well as some of his experiences of growing up in the Ida B. Wells Housing Project. He recalls a sense of community within his neighborhood; he was a regular participant in the Abraham Lincoln Centre programs and was exposed to the blues music in the clubs on Chicago's South Side.

John Watson recalls his elementary school experiences at Oakland Elementary School and he describes his life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois. From an early age, Watson enjoyed exploring the city and would visit regularly the Museum of Science and Industry. He also learned to avoid certain segregated Chicago neighborhoods and their hostilities. To earn some money, Watson sold copies of the "Chicago Defender" and worked as a "paperboy" for the Chicago Sun Times He describes a couple of incidents when he was mugged and robbed. Watson attended Parker High School, and he describes the school's increasing African American presence within the student body. He graduated from high school in 1957. Experimenting with his Gilbert chemistry set and watching the DuPont Chemical commercials on TV, Watson explains that he enjoyed science as a youth.

John Watson describes his growing interest in science, but notes that he did not have any mentors. Talking about his high school years (1953-1957) at Parker High School, Watson describes some of his teachers and the success of his classmates. Watson pursued college studies at the University of Illinois, Navy Pier, but due to low grades, was urged to leave school. While at Navy Pier, Watson met and married Valerie (Modia Landry). He was soon hired at the American Institute of Baking to assist in their basic, nutritional biochemistry research endeavor. In 1960, Watson resumed his college education at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He describes how he was awarded the Commonwealth Edison Academic Scholarship for Colored Students. Watson earned his B.A. degree in biology in 1964 and pursued his graduate studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago Medical Center.

John Watson describes his graduate research on the metabolism of glyceraldehyde by Rhodotorula sp. at the University of Illinois Medical Center; his adviser was James A. Hayashi. Watson isolated the initial, essential enzyme that allowed Rhodotorula to grow on glyceraldehyde as its sole carbon source. After completing his Ph.D. degree in biochemistry, in 1967, Watson began a two-year, Post doctoral Fellowship at Brandeis University under the mentorship of John M. Lowenstein. His research focused on the regulation of long chain fatty-acid biosynthesis. In 1969, Watson was hired by the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), with hopes of earning tenure within seven years. Watson describes two of his mentors, John S. Wellington, Assistant Dean for Medical Student Affairs for the UCSF School of Medicine and William J. Rutter, Chair of the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics.

John Watson discusses the research he conducted at UCSF. Watson describes his seminal finding that liver cancer cells were able to regulate their level of cholesterol synthesis. Watson also conducted studies on the regulation of mevalonic acid biosynthesis by fruit fly cells and Halobacterium halobium. He closes this section of the interview by sharing the history of the Coalition for the Advancement of Blacks in the Biochemical Sciences (CABBS).

While explaining the benefits of working with Halobacterium halobium, John Watson discusses the importance of developing an array of biological research models and their usefulness in understanding fundamental, natural processes. He then explains his decision to retire from the University of California, San Francisco, and the rigorous process of applying for funding in scientific research. Watson then reflects on the students he has mentored and notes that many of them have found success in academia, including Michael Drake, Chancellor of University of California, Irvine. After sharing his strategies for conducting research in his laboratory and for mentoring students, Watson closes this tape by discussing his hopes and concerns for the African American community, namely that the number of African Americans entering higher education has not grown as he and his colleagues had hoped.

John Watson reflects on his decisions and the life experiences that have shaped him into the person he has become, although he wishes he would have had the same opportunities as the youth of today. In addition to his scientific accomplishments, Watson hopes that his legacy will be as a successful African American in science. Watson enjoys spending time with his family and doing work around his home, particularly after retiring from the University of California, San Francisco. In retirement, Watson has reconnected with his African roots and has made several trips to Africa. Specifically, trips were made to Nigeria, Egypt, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. On the latter visit Watson and his wife were part of a group that introduced their hosts to the celebration and festivities of Kwanzaa.

John Watson discusses how he wants to be remembered, and he closes the interview by sharing his advice for students interested in science.

64 Stories (See Ordered Story Set)