James Dewey Watson

The American biologist James Dewey Watson (born 1928) was a discoverer of the double-helical structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid molecule.

James D. Watson was born April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois. At age 15 he entered the University of Chicago. He graduated in 1947 and went on to pursue graduate study in the biological sciences at Indiana University. There he came under the influence of some distinguished scientists, including Nobel laureate Hermann J. Muller, who were instrumental in shifting his interests from natural history toward genetics and biochemistry. In 1950 Watson successfully completed his doctoral research project on the effect of x-rays upon the multiplication of bacteriophages (viruses that attack bacterial cells).

Watson spent 1950-1951 as a National Research Council fellow in Copenhagen doing postdoctoral work with biochemist Herman Kalckar. He had hoped to learn more about the biochemistry of the genetic material deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). These studies proved unproductive. It was not until the spring of 1951, when he heard the English biophysicist Maurice Wilkins speak in Naples on the structure of the DNA molecule, that Watson enthusiastically turned his full attention to the DNA problem.

Watson's next research post at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, England, brought him into contact with the physicist turned biologist Francis Crick. Together they shared an interest in DNA while he was preparing for his doctorate. Thus began the partnership between Watson and Crick which resulted in their joint proposal of the double-helical model of the DNA in 1953. Watson, Crick, and Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their DNA studies.

The structure of the giant and complex DNA molecule reveals the physical and chemical basis of heredity. Watson and Crick were convinced that the molecular subunits which made up DNA were arranged in a relatively simple pattern that could be discovered by them. Their mode of operation stressed the conception and construction of large-scale models that would account for the known chemical and physical properties of DNA. To this model-building endeavor Watson contributed the double-helical structure, along with other fruitful, intuitive suggestions, while Crick provided the necessary mathematical and theoretical knowledge. After their work on DNA was completed, Watson and Crick collaborated again in 1957, this time in clarifying the structure of viruses.

After a two-year stay at the California Institute of Technology, Watson accepted a position as professor of biology at Harvard University in 1956 and remained on the faculty until 1976. In 1968 he became the director of the Cold Spring Biological Laboratories but retained his research and teaching position at Harvard. That same year he published The Double Helix, revealing the human story behind the discovery of the DNA structure, including the rivalries and deceits which were practiced by all.

While at Harvard Watson wrote The Molecular Biology of the Gene (1965), the first widely used university textbook on molecular biology. This text has gone through seven editions and exists in two large volumes as a comprehensive treatise of the field. He gave up his faculty appointment at the university in 1976, however, and assumed full-time leadership of Cold Spring Harbor. With John Tooze and David Kurtz, Watson wrote The Molecular Biology of the Cell, originally published in 1983.

In l989 Watson was appointed the director of the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health. Less than two years later, in 1992, he resigned in protest over policy differences in the operation of this massive project. He continued to speak out on various issues concerning scientific research and upheld his strong presence concerning federal policies in supporting research. In addition to sharing the Nobel Prize, Watson received numerous honorary degrees from institutions, including one from the University of Chicago (1961) when Watson was still in his early thirties. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter.

Watson, as his book The Double Helix confirms, has never avoided controversy. His candor about his colleagues and his combativeness in public forums have been noted by critics. Nevertheless, his scientific brilliance is attested to by Crick, Delbruck, Luria, and others. The importance of his role in the DNA discovery has been well supported by Gunther Stent, a member of the Delbruck phage group, in an essay which discounts many of Watson's critics through well-reasoned arguments.

Most of Watson's professional life has been spent as a professor, research administrator, and public policy spokesman for research. More than any other location in Watson's professional life, Cold Spring Harbor (where he is still director) has been the most congenial in developing his abilities as a scientific catalyst for others. His work there has primarily been to facilitate and encourage the research of other scientists.

In 1968 Watson married Elizabeth Lewis. They had two children, Rufus Robert and Duncan James.


Further Reading on James Dewey Watson

Ruth Moore, The Coil of Life: The Story of the Great Discoveries in the Life Sciences (1961), has a chapter describing Watson's personality and work in detail. George and Muriel Beadle, The Language of Life: An Introduction to the Science of Genetics (1966), and Leonard Engel, The New Genetics (1967), provide lucid discussions of Watson's life and his scientific work. General appraisals of the significance of DNA in modern biology are in Ernest Borek, The Code of Life (1965; rev. ed. 1969), and John C. Kendrew, The Thread of Life: An Introduction to Molecular Biology (1966).