James Dewey Watson

Watson, James Dewey (1928-), an American molecular biologist, helped determine the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the carrier of genetic material in living organisms. For this achievement, Watson shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine with British biologist Francis H.C. Crick and British biophysicist Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins.

In the early 1950's, Watson and Crick became partners in a search to find the structure of DNA. They were not the only scientists investigating DNA, however, and they soon found themselves in a race to become the first to solve the problem. The two met a few hours a day to discuss their approach. Based on the results of crystallography experiments being done in Wilkins's laboratory. Watson and Crick were able to construct a three-dimensional model of the DNA molecule using beads, wire, and cardboard. In 1953, Watson and Crick published the results of their findings in the British journal Nature. They had won the race to find DNA's structure and, as a result, discovered the building blocks of life.


The Watson-Crick model showed that a DNA molecule is a double helix. The structure of DNA shed light on how it replicates itself. DNA consists of two strands that form the sides of a ladder, twisted to resemble a spiral staircase. The rungs of the ladder consist of paired bases, with alternating chemicals. During cell division, the ladder is unzipped, as if the ladder were divided down the middle. When this happens, the sequence of bases acts as a template, creating new ladders, which are identical to the original ladders. In this way, genetic information is passed down through the generations.

Watson has been affiliated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York, since 1968. In that time, he has helped nurture succeeding generations of geneticists. He is the author of The Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965), a widely used molecular biology textbook, and co-author of The Molecular Biology of the Cell (1983). He is known as an outspoken critic on scientific issues and wrote candidly about his fellow scientists in his 1968 memoir, The Double Helix, a book that recounts his and Crick's two-year-long collaboration.

Watson was the only son of James D. and Jean (Mitchell) Watson. As a boy he enjoyed bird watching. He was educated in the Chicago public schools, attending Horace Mann Grammar School and South Shore High School. Watson excelled in his schoolwork and appeared on Quiz Kids, a popular radio show in the 1940's. He left high school in 1943, after two years, to enroll in an experimental college of the University of Chicago, where he studied ornithology. Initially, he wanted to become an ornithologist and work in a wildlife refuge. By the time he earned his B.S. degree in zoology four years later, however, his interests had turned to genetics and a desire “to learn what the gene was.”

Watson enrolled in graduate school at Indiana University in Bloomington on a scholarship. While at Indiana. Watson conducted his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Italian bacteriologist Salvador Edward Luria. Watson's research focused on the effect of X rays on the multiplication of a phage, or bacterial virus. In the summer of 1948, Watson and Luria traveled to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It was Watson's first visit to the facility and he was there to take a three-week course, taught by Max Delbrück, a German biologist, who had published a landmark paper on phage genetics. Watson completed his Ph.D. degree in 1950 and then spent a year researching the biochemistry of DNA at the University of Copenhagen on a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship.

In the spring of 1951, Watson attended a scientific conference in Naples, Italy. It was at this symposium that Maurice Wilkins, a genetics researcher from King's College Laboratory in London, spoke about his X-ray work on DNA and showed a photograph he had taken using the technique. The talk had a profound influence on Watson and sparked his interest in the subject. Shortly after this, Watson heard about Linus Carl Pauling 's models showing the partial structure of proteins. Inspired to pursue this line of work, Watson arranged to assist John Cowdery Kendrew at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, to study the structure of proteins.

In the fall of 1951, Watson came to Cambridge under a grant from the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis. In an effort to save money, he lived in a room in Kendrew's house. Watson soon learned that he lacked an interest in proteins and that he wanted to study DNA. Soon after arriving at the lab, he met Francis Crick and the two quickly discovered their mutual interest in investigating DNA. At the time, Crick was a 35-year-old graduate student, experimenting with proteins. Both Watson and Crick decided that the best way to explore the structure of DNA was to follow the same method Pauling had used to construct his protein models. Instead of using extensive mathematical reasoning to solve his problem, Pauling had relied on the simple laws of structural chemistry. He then created threedimensional models that showed which atoms were next to each other. Like Pauling, Watson and Crick reasoned through their problem, meeting a few hours each day. They developed their model, refining as they went along to ensure it agreed with existing scientific evidence.

Watson and Crick received some help with their investigation from Rosalind Elsie Franklin, a British physical chemist and colleague of Wilkins at King's College in London. Watson and Crick were struggling over DNA's shape when Watson was shown an X-ray diffraction made by Franklin, which clearly revealed that DNA's structure was that of a helix. Although this photograph proved crucial to Watson and Crick's discovery, Franklin was unaware they had seen it. She died of cancer in 1958 and Watson offered a belated recognition to Franklin's contribution in his book The Double Helix. Watson and Crick reported their results in two papers published in the spring of 1953. The first article was accompanied with an illustration of a helix, drawn by Crick's wife, Odile.

Later in 1953, Watson accepted a position as a senior research fellow in biology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. Two years later, he was appointed assistant professor of biology at Harvard University, where he was named associate professor in 1958 and full professor in 1961. Seven years later, Watson became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York, while still remaining on the faculty at Harvard. He continued with this dual duty until 1976, when he left Harvard to devote all his energies to Cold Spring Harbor.

Since assuming leadership at Cold Spring Harbor, Watson has promoted research in the area of tumor virology and this line of investigation has led scientists to a better understanding of cancer genes. Watson has also emphasized education and expanded the laboratory's class offerings for advanced students in molecular biology as well middle and high school students. To further his educational goals, he founded a degree-granting institution, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Watson School of Biological Sciences. In 1994, he became president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a position he still holds. As president, he has helped guide overall policy for the facility.

In 1988, Watson became assistant director, and a year later director, of the National Center for the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While overseeing the project, he earmarked a small portion of the funds to study ethical issues resulting from the project's findings. Throughout his tenure, Watson had a number of policy disagreements with the NIH and, in 1992, he resigned.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Watson has received numerous awards including the John Collins Warren Prize of Massachusetts General Hospital, 1959; the Eli Lilly Award in Biochemistry, 1960; the Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association, 1960; the John J. Carty Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, 1971; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1977. He has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 1958 and the National Academy of Sciences since 1962.