Watson, James Dewey (1928–)
James Watson collaborated with FRANCIS HARRY COMPTON CRICK to discover the key to human heredity by building a model of the molecular structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. He won the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology with Crick and MAURICE HUGH FREDERICK WILKINS for this revolutionary discovery. Watson spent the remainder of his career in genetic research, endeavoring to map all known genes, which number in the hundred thousands, for a period in the late 1980s.
Watson was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, to Jean Mitchell and James Dewey Watson. He married Elizabeth Lewis in 1968 and together the couple had two sons, Rufus Robert and Duncan James. A child prodigy, Watson entered the University of Chicago at the age of 15 and received his bachelor's degree in zoology in 1947. He indulged an interest in ornithology at the University of Michigan's summer research station at Douglas Lake in 1946, but reading ERWIN SCHRÖDINGER's What Is Life? convinced him to pursue the genetic key to the mystery of the reproduction of life. In 1947 he commenced doctoral study under SALVADOR EDWARD LURIA at Indiana University, joining the Phage Group organized by Luria, MAX DELBRÜCK, and other prominent biologists. Watson wrote his dissertation on the effect of X-rays on the rate of bacteriophage lysis, or bursting, to earn his Ph.D. in 1950.
In the next year he worked on a National Research Council fellowship grant to research protein molecular structure in Copenhagen, Denmark. He then moved to Cambridge, England, under the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, working at the Cavendish Laboratory from 1951 to 1953. There he partnered with Crick to search for the molecular structure of DNA. On the basis of X-ray diffraction photographs from Wilkins and ROSALIND ELSIE FRANKLIN and data on DNA's four organic nucleotides, or bases, from Erwin Chargaff, Watson and Crick followed the model-building strategy of LINUS CARL PAULING to construct a double-helix structure resembling two interlacing spiral staircases that conformed to existing information on DNA. They published their findings in the April—May 1953 issues of the British journal Nature. Watson won the coin toss to determine whose name would appear first.
In the summer of 1953 Watson commenced what would become a long-term relationship with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology on Long Island in New York. He took over directorship of the lab in 1968 and shifted his full-time attention to this position in 1976 when he retired from Harvard University, where he had taught since 1955 and served as a professor of biology since 1961. In 1989 he became director of the Human Genome Project of the National Institutes of Health, mapping all known chromosomes, but he resigned within two years over policy disputes. Watson retired in 1993.
In 1965 Watson published The Molecular Biology of the Gene, the first widely adopted textbook on the topic. In 1968 he published his landmark personal and professional autobiography of the years 1951 through 1953, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. He later collaborated with John Tooze and David Kurtz on the 1983 publication The Molecular Biology of the Cell. Aside from the Nobel Prize, recognition of Watson's career peaked in 1977 when Jimmy Carter presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.