Authors: James D. Watson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American biologist and memoirist

Author Works


Molecular Biology of the Gene, 1965, 4th revised edition 1987 (with others)

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, 1968 (memoir)

The DNA Story: A Documentary History of Gene Cloning, 1981 (with John Tooze)

Molecular Biology of the Cell, 1983 (with others)

Recombinant DNA: A Short Course, 1983 (with Tooze and David Kurtz)

A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes, and Society, 2000

Genes, Girls, and Gamow, 2001 (also known as Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix, 2002)


James Dewey Watson played a pivotal role in the discovery of the structure of the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) molecule. His parents were James Dewey Watson, a businessman, and Jean (Mitchell) Watson, a couple whose English and Scotch-Irish roots in the Midwest went back for several generations. They provided their son and their daughter Elizabeth with a comfortable childhood and an excellent education, beginning with nursery school at the University of Chicago. James was a child prodigy who developed the habit of reading widely, a practice that stood him in good stead when he was an ebullient member of the Quiz Kids radio show. He attended the Horace Mann Elementary School for eight years and the South Shore High School for two years. Aside from bird-watching, which he found a pleasant way to learn about ornithology, he had no special interest in science until he read Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925), the story of a medical doctor’s experiences with the joys and frustrations of research. This novel stimulated him to dream that he would make great scientific discoveries.{$I[AN]9810000788}{$I[A]Watson, James D.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Watson, James D.}{$I[tim]1928;Watson, James D.}

James D. Watson

In the summer of 1943, when he was only fifteen years old, he received a tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago’s four-year experimental college. As an undergraduate, he was principally interested in birds and avoided taking any advanced chemistry and physics courses, although he did outstanding work in the courses of his program, obtaining A’s even from professors who rarely gave them. In 1947 he received a bachelor of science degree in zoology and a bachelor of philosophy degree. With a fellowship for graduate study in zoology at Indiana University, he went to Bloomington, where he came under the influence of two Nobel Prize-winning scientists, the geneticist Hermann J. Muller and the microbiologist Salvador E. Luria. Watson’s thesis, under the direction of Luria, was a study of the effect of high-energy X rays on the multiplication of bacteria-destroying viruses (bacteriophages). After receiving his Ph.D. in 1950, Watson, who had come to share Luria’s passion to understand the chemistry of viruses, was awarded a Merck Postdoctoral Fellowship by the National Research Council to continue his work in Copenhagen at the laboratories of the biochemist Herman Kalckar and the microbiologist Ole Maaløe. In the spring of 1951 Watson traveled with Kalckar to a symposium at Naples, where he met Maurice Wilkins, who was studying DNA crystals with X rays. This meeting stimulated Watson to change the direction of his research from bacteriophages to the structural chemistry of proteins and nucleic acids. Fortunately, Luria was able to arrange for Watson to work with John Kendrew, a molecular biologist at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge.

Watson arrived at Cambridge in the fall of 1951 and began to assist Kendrew with his X-ray studies of the protein myoglobin. Since the myoglobin molecule released the secrets of its structure only grudgingly, Watson grew bored with the hard work and modest results, and when he met Francis Crick, a British physicist who was working desultorily on a doctoral thesis involving the X-ray diffraction of proteins, he discovered that they shared an enthusiasm about the gene and the way it replicated. Watson and Crick decided to collaborate. It seemed to both of them that the gene’s secrets could be attacked only when its structure was known, which meant deciphering the structure of DNA. With a fellowship from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Watson began his most productive period. The inspiration for the work of Watson and Crick was Linus Pauling, the American chemist who had deciphered the structures of numerous molecules, from the mineral molybdenite to the fibrous and globular proteins. Originally, Crick believed that solving DNA’s structure was the job of Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin at King’s College, London, but as time went on, Watson and Crick became impatient with the slow progress of the X-ray diffraction studies of the King’s College group. The failure of Crick’s colleagues at the Cavendish Laboratory to discover the structure of proteins before Pauling made a deep impression on Crick and Watson. Pauling had solved the structure by using his deep knowledge of structural chemistry to impose constraints on the molecular models he constructed. Watson and Crick believed that they could solve DNA’s structure in the same way, and they raced to reach the solution before Pauling. Their experiments, with the help of findings by Franklin at King’s College, resulted in their discovery of the double helix as the mechanism for the duplication of the DNA molecule. Watson and Crick described the double helix in their now-famous paper published in Nature on April 25, 1953.

Watson left the Cavendish Laboratory in the fall of 1953 to become a senior research fellow in biology at the California Institute of Technology. Watson had become interested in ribonucleic acid (RNA), and in Pasadena he was able to work with Alexander Rich, a medical doctor who had collaborated with Pauling, in X-ray diffraction studies of RNA. In 1955 Watson returned to the Cavendish Laboratory to work again with Crick. During their year together, they published several papers on the general principles of viral structure. In 1956 Watson joined the biology department at Harvard University, where he quickly passed through the academic ranks, becoming full professor in 1961, and where he established a research laboratory in which many future leaders in molecular biology were trained. Watson’s major interest in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was the role of RNA in protein synthesis, and one of the important conclusions that he and his coworkers helped to establish was that protein synthesis requires the ordered interaction of three types of RNA. In 1962 Watson shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Crick and Wilkins for his part in the discovery of the three-dimensional structure of DNA. With the prestige bestowed by the Nobel Prize, he became an effective spokesperson for molecular biology. In 1965 he published a textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene, which, through its successive editions, became the vade mecum for molecular biologists from college freshmen to practicing scientists.

The year 1968 marked several important events in Watson’s life. On March 28, he married Elizabeth Lewis, with whom he would have two sons. Later in the year, he left Harvard to assume the directorship of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on the North Shore of Long Island. According to some of his subordinates, he ran the laboratory as a benevolent despot, but he had a perceptive eye for important research problems and talented workers. In 1968 he also published The Double Helix, a controversial account of how the structure of DNA was discovered. Some scientists, including Crick and Wilkins, objected to Watson’s unfavorable portrayal of them. Several reviewers thought that The Double Helix distorted the work of scientists into a race for prizes. But the book had its defenders, who praised Watson’s honesty for depicting the confused motives and competitive personalities that comprise science as it is actually practiced. These reviewers believed that Watson’s book was a much-needed amendment to the traditional picture of science as objective and impersonal.

During his early tenure at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Watson initiated a large-scale study of how viruses can make cells cancerous, and in the process he established the laboratory as a key site for studying the molecular biology of animal cells. In the 1970’s Watson was awarded the prestigious John J. Carty Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1975 he was one of the founders and participants of the Asilomar Conference on the possible dangers of recombinant DNA research. He had a jaundiced view of what was accomplished, noting that the participants pretended to act responsibly but were actually irresponsible in approving recommendations that did not adversely affect anyone’s work. In 1988 Watson became involved in a project that had the potential to rival the size and scope of the Apollo moon-landing program: to map completely the genetic instructions for making a human being. Despite criticism, the National Institutes of Health began funding the Human Genome Project, and Watson became its director. He expressed great enthusiasm for the project’s goals, though the project’s success would involve troubling ethical questions. Watson saw a mapped human genome as having the potential to do much good, for example, in helping to understand and eventually eliminate many genetic diseases; however, he was driven to resign his directorship in 1992 after a federal probe into his financial interests in biotechnology companies. The next year, he was named chairman of the International Science Foundation.

Watson is most likely to be remembered among the wider public for The Double Helix because it frankly described for the first time the human circumstances behind a great scientific discovery. This memoir, which has been translated into many foreign languages and made into a major film, helped to shape a generation’s view of science. Many scientists who were idealistic about their research regretted this influence. On the other hand, there is little doubt that Watson, who as a young man dreamed of scientific glory, achieved his dream.

BibliographyEdelson, Edward. Francis Crick and James Watson and the Building Blocks of Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A balanced presentation of the process of discovering the structure of DNA. Includes many sidebars and other aids to help the general reader understand the basics of molecular biology.Friedberg, Errol C. The Writing Life of James D. Watson. Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2004. A scholarly examination of Watson’s scientific writing, spanning research papers to textbooks to popular science books.McElheny, Victor K. Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus, 2003. An unauthorized biography, focusing on Watson’s scientific career and his influence in shaping twentieth century scientific thought.The New York Times, February 25, 2003, pp. F1-F4. Five articles assess the importance of Watson and Crick’s work, fifty years after their ground-breaking discovery of the structure of DNA. Includes a profile of the two, an analysis of their Nature paper, discussion of the repercussions of their work, including the Human Genome Project, and much else.Strathern, Paul. The Big Idea: Crick, Watson, and DNA. New York: Anchor Books, 1999. Details the working partnership between Watson and Crick.
Categories: Authors