James D. Watson Biography

Academic, Biologist, Geneticist, Zoologist, Scientist(1928–)
James D. Watson is a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist and researcher credited with co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA.


Born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, James D. Watson is credited with the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA along with Francis Crick. Watson received a 1962 Nobel Prize and went on to do work in cancer research and mapping the human genome. He later came under fire for several controversial remarks on subjects ranging from obesity to race-based intelligence.

Early Years

James Dewey Watson was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 6, 1928, and spent his childhood there, attending Horace Mann Grammar School and South Shore High School before earning a scholarship to the University of Chicago and enrolling at age 15. In 1947, he received a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and then went on to attend Indiana University in Bloomington, where he received his Ph.D. in zoology in 1950. During his graduate studies, Watson was influenced by the work of geneticists H. J. Muller and T. M. Sonneborn and microbiologist S. E. Luria. His Ph.D. thesis was a study of the effect of hard X-rays on bacteriophage multiplication, and he became interested in the work of scientists working at the University of Cambridge with photographic patterns made by X-rays.

Postgraduate Work

In 1950, Watson began his postdoctoral studies in Copenhagen as a Merck Fellow of the National Research Council. During this time, he worked with biochemist Herman Kalckar, and later microbiologist Ole Maaløe, and studied bacterial viruses to investigate the structure of DNA. In the spring of 1951, he went with Kalckar to the Zoological Station at Naples, where he met Maurice Wilkins and saw for the first time crystalline DNA's X-ray diffraction pattern. That fall, Luria and English biochemist John Kendrew helped Watson move his research to the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, where he continued his work with X-rays, learning diffraction techniques. He also met molecular biologist Francis Crick, who shared his interest in puzzling out the structure of DNA. The pair began their historic work soon after.

The Discovery

Crick's and Watson's first serious effort toward learning the structure of DNA came up short, but their second attempt, concluded in the spring of 1953 and resulted in the pair putting forth the double-helical configuration, which resembles a twisting ladder. Their model also showed how the DNA molecule could duplicate itself, thus answering one of the constant fundamental questions in the field of genetics. Watson and Crick published their findings in "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in the British journal Nature in April-May 1953 to great acclaim.

Watson and Crick had used the work of English chemist Rosalind Franklin, a colleague of Maurice Wilkins's at King's College London, to arrive at their groundbreaking discovery, however, her contribution to their findings would go largely unrecognized until after her death. Franklin had compiled several unpublished working papers describing the structural qualities of DNA, and with her student Raymond Gosling had taken an X-ray diffraction image of DNA, known as Photo 51, which would become crucial evidence in identifying the structure of DNA. Without Franklin's knowledge or permission, Wilkins shared Photo 51 and her data with Watson. Although Watson and Crick included a footnote in their article acknowledging that they were "stimulated by a general knowledge" of Franklin's unpublished contributions, it was Watson, Crick and Wilkins who went on to receive a Nobel Prize for their work in 1962, four years after Franklin had died of ovarian cancer.

Academia and Beyond

In 1955, Watson moved on to Harvard University, where he taught biology for 15 years and conducted research. While there, he published Molecular Biology of the Gene, which would go on to become one of the most extensively used biology texts.

In 1968, Watson took the reins of the Laboratory of Quantitative Biology in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York, transforming it into a global hub of molecular biology research over the following decades. That year, he also wrote his first memoir The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

Watson married Elizabeth Lewis in 1968, and they have two sons together — Rufus, who was born in 1970, and Duncan, who was born in 1972. His older son Rufus was diagnosed schizophrenia, which played a role in the direction of Watson's work. "Warm and perceptive, Rufus cannot lead an independent life because of schizophrenia, lacking the ability to engage in day-to-day activities," Watson was quoted in The Telegraph. "For all too long, my wife and I hoped that what Rufus needed was an appropriate challenge on which to focus. But as he passed into adolescence, I feared the origin of his diminished life lay in his genes. It was this realization that led me to help to bring the human genome project into existence."

From 1988 to 1992, Watson helped to establish and direct the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, where he oversaw the mapping of the genes in human chromosomes. His own genome was sequenced in 2007, making him the second person to have this done. "I am putting my genome sequence on line to encourage the development of an era of personalized medicine, in which information contained in our genomes can be used to identify and prevent disease and to create individualized medical therapies," Watson wrote on the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory website. 

In 2007, Watson also wrote the memoir Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. In October of that year, Watson was sharply criticized for controversial statements he made when he was quoted in The Times saying: ”[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really."

His comments resulted in his resignation from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and soon after, he formally announced his retirement. Watson apologized for his comments and in a statement released by the Associated Press he said: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

These were not Watson's first statements that stirred controversy. At a lecture at the University of California at Berkeley in 2000, the Nobel laureate suggested a link between exposure to sunlight and sexual drive. "That's why you have Latin lovers," Watson said. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient." At the lecture, he also said: "Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you're not going to hire them."

In another controversial move, Watson auctioned off his Nobel Prize at Christie's in December 2014, the first time a Nobel Prize was sold by a living Nobel laureate. It sold for $4.1 million, which Watson told the New York Times, would be used in part to raise funds "to support and empower scientific discovery," as well as be used to support himself and his family. Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who was listed as Russia's richest man by Forbes magazine, purchased the Nobel Prize and returned it to Watson. “It was a huge honor for me to be able to show my respect for a scientist who has made an invaluable contribution to the development of modern science," Usmanov said in a statement. "These kinds of awards must remain with their original recipients.”

Over the course of his long career, James D. Watson has been honored numerous times, taking home the John Collins Warren Prize of the Massachusetts General Hospital (1959, with Crick), the Lasker Award (1960, with Crick and Maurice Wilkins) and the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1962, with Crick and Wilkins), among others. Additionally, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and the Danish Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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