Alisher Usmanov has announced he is the mystery buyer of the 1962 Nobel Prize for Medicine, which was awarded to James Watson, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, and recently sold at auction. The purchaser plans to return the award to Watson.
Usmanov is an entrepreneur from Moscow who has made himself the richest man in Russia.
James Watson won the prize, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, for their work discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, heralding the modern age of genetic engineering. This is the first time a Nobel Prize medal awarded to a living person was sold.
James Watson, now 86 years old, had announced to the press that his motive for selling the award was to donate the money to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a private research lab focusing on cancer, neuroscience, plant genetics and genomics, and other institutions. When the philanthropist in Moscow heard the news, he decided to buy the medal, so that the donation by Watson did not cost the geneticist his prize.
"In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable. James Watson is one of the greatest biologists in the history of mankind and his award for the discovery of DNA structure must belong to him," Usmanov said.
Watson has raised significant controversy overt the last few years by claiming Africans are not as intelligent as Caucasians, as well as making other statements many people have found offensive. These remarks caused a significant backlash from amateur and professional scientists on social media.
Usmanov contacted Watson prior to the auction, offering to make a donation to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory if the pioneering geneticist would cancel the auction. The scientist decided not to call off the sale, wanting to see how the bidding would unfold.
Nobel Prizes are only awarded to living researchers, and Maurice Wilkins passed away in 1958, four years before the Nobel Prize was first awarded.
Usmanov paid $4.76 million dollars for the prize, including commission fees to Christie's Auction House. This is the greatest amount of money ever paid for a Nobel Prize. The Russian businessman is worth an estimated $15.8 billion, a fortune he amassed through investments in mining, steel, and telecom companies. The Russian tycoon also has a personal connection to genetics.
"Dr. Watson's work contributed to cancer research, the illness from which my father died. It is important for me that the money that I spent on this medal will go to supporting scientific research, and the medal will stay with the person who deserved it," Usmanov said.