The Creative Fundraising of Jim Watson

by Anthony Dellureficio, Archivist

In May 1968, less than a year after taking up his appointment as Director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, James D. Watson received a letter on official Playboy letterhead. In their never ending quest to bring quality journalism to their readers, a columnist for Playboy contacted several prominent authors, scientists, and other people he perceived as creative, requesting that they respond to the question, what are the sources of creativity?

The columnist suggested two possible viewpoints: creativity is born from an unhappy childhood and creativity comes from a "core of bone-hard selfishness." Playboy offered $200 for responses which get published in the next issue.

Never one to miss out on an opportunity for lab fundraising, Watson began his response by describing his "not crazy hope" of building an annex to the tumor virus lab to provide space for eating, talking, and thinking.

He continued the letter by getting back to the original question, writing that, "in my experience more than half of all good ideas come when you are forced to think during accidental conversations with someone very bright." He proceeded to ask that Playboy to deviate from their normal business interactions by donating $60,000 to help CSHL achieve the dream of building this interactions center.

Glenn Hefner wrote back to Watson a few days later with his response. "As you say, this would be a new direction for Playboy."

No financial help from Playboy would be sent; however, this correspondence between Watson and Playboy is an indication of the primary focus for the new director of the laboratory. He spent a significant portion of his first director’s report discussing the financial situation of CSHL and his desire to find sources of funding, "since Federal funds for the support of science are much more difficult to find now than at any time in the past decade, and this tight fiscal situation is likely to prevail for some years."

Watson was literally willing to pursue any avenue available, however unlikely, to secure funding for the laboratory.

Through tireless fundraising, Watson was able to continue the financial turn-around which began during the tenure of CSHL director John Cairns. By 1994, when the directorial torch was passed to Bruce Stillman, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was in a much less tenuous fiscal situation.

Stillman noted that "through the extraordinary efforts of Jim Watson during the last 25 years in redirecting the science, securing an endowment, and expanding the facilities, the status of the Laboratory’s finances and infrastructure now parallels its outstanding history."

Among the fundraising and expansion successes during Watson’s directorship, were the building of the James Laboratory through a donation of John Davenport in 1971 and the development of the Banbury Center, donated by Charles Robertson in 1976.

Under his tutelage, CSHL undertook the building, renovation, or acquisition of Yellow House, Osterhout Cottage, Olney House, Hershey Building, Delbruck Laboratory, Harris Building, Sambrook Laboratory, Grace Auditorium, Cairns Laboratory, Page Laboratory, Dolan DNA Learning Center, Dolan Hall, Hazen Tower, and Beckman Laboratory, though sadly there would never be a CSHL Hugh Hefner Interactions Center.

Even in light of these successes, Watson never lost sight of the real key to a successful future at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory which was that, "only by continuing to do science at its best will we maintain the financial strength needed to allow us to design and maintain buildings that our neighbors can forever take delight in."

Anthony Dellureficio is the James D. Watson Special Collections Archivist at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library and Archives. He is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a double major in the History of Science, Medicine & Technology and Italian Literature. He obtained his M.L.S. from the University of Maryland in 2005. He lives in Oyster Bay, New York, and he can be reached here.


Letter from A.C. Spectorsky to James D. Watson, 22 May 1968. Box 35, Folder 13, Series: Correspondence, James D. Watson Collection, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

Letter from James D. Watson to A.C. Spectorsky, 17 February 1969. Box 35, Folder 13, Series: Correspondence, James D. Watson Collection, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

Letter from Glenn L. Hefner to James D. Watson, 21 February 1969. Box 35, Folder 13, Series: Correspondence, James D. Watson Collection, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Archives.

James D. Watson. “Director’s Report.”Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Report 1968 (NY, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1969), p. 4.

Bruce Stillman. “Director’s Report.”Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Report 1994 (NY, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1995), p. 6.[1] James D. Watson. “Director’s Report.”Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Annual Report 1993 (NY, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 1994), p. 10.

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