James D. Watson Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Watson helped describe the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the molecule that is the basis of heredity, and has also done research on protein synthesis and the role of viruses in cancer.

Early Life

James Dewey Watson was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 6, 1928, the son of James Dewey and Jean (née Mitchell) Watson. His early life was spent in the Chicago area; he attended the University of Chicago Nursery School, Horace Mann Elementary School, and South Shore High School. An intellectually precocious youngster, Watson matriculated at the College of the University of Chicago when he was fifteen, after only two years of high school. As an undergraduate, he was drawn to the study of science, especially biology, in which he achieved very high grades. Two qualities of his mind showed early development during these years: sharp perception of the natural world and the ability to master and retain complex abstract information. One favorite early pastime was bird-watching, and Watson considered specializing in ornithology, the study of birds. (He later recommended bird-watching as good early training for the budding professional scientist.) Information mastery enabled him later to be at ease in discussions with colleagues and in lectures to students: After making careful notes, he developed a flow of talk without recourse to them.

Four years later, in 1947, Watson was graduated from Chicago with both Ph.B. and B.S. degrees. He then moved to the University of Indiana for graduate work. There, he studied with several distinguished scientists, including Tracy M. Sonneborn and Ralph Cleland. Two other scientists helped direct him to his field of greatest interest, genetics, the study of the ways in which an organism passes on its qualities to offspring. These professors were Hermann Joseph Muller, Nobel laureate in genetics, and Salvador Luria, an Italian-trained microbiologist. Under Luria’s supervision, Watson wrote his doctoral thesis on bacteriophages—viruses which invade and multiply in bacteria. He was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1950.

Viruses, thought at this time to be “naked genes,” are intermediate in size between the giant molecules of organic chemistry and the even more complex ones of living matter; as a creative worker in genetics, Watson saw that he would have to learn more chemistry to supplement his firm grounding in biology. A “young man from the provinces,” he yearned also to broaden his cultural outloook during this post-World War II era in which international cooperation was at a new high point. Clearly, postdoctoral work abroad was called for, and Luria, Watson’s Indiana mentor, suggested Copenhagen University, where he knew people doing significant research in the biochemistry department. Watson was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship there for 1950-1951. Photographs of him around this time reveal a tall, slender, sharp-featured young man with bushy brown hair. A contemporary describes him as intense, energetic, usually moving feverishly around the laboratory, wearing a rumpled shirt with no tie.

Life’s Work

At Copenhagen, Watson studied chemistry and continued research on bacteriophages. An important turning point occurred in Naples, Italy, in the spring of 1951, during an international biological conference which he attended and at which he met Maurice H. F. Wilkins of the University of London. At this conference, Wilkins demonstrated his technique of X-ray diffraction, exhibiting pictures he had taken of the molecule deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), believed to be crucially involved in the transmission of genetic information for all plants and animals. Watson formulated as his special goal the task of defining exactly the structure and function of this molecule. Wilkins’ pictures were one form of evidence. At this point, Watson decided to leave Copenhagen for the Cavendish Laboratories of Cambridge University in England, where Francis Crick, well-grounded in mathematics and chemistry, was also trying to discover the structure of DNA. Between the fall of 1951 and the spring of 1953, Watson worked closely with Crick and intermittently with Wilkins, carefully watching the work of researchers on both sides of the Atlantic as well.

As Watson began this work, it was already known that DNA is composed of six kinds of subunits: sugars, phosphates, and four bases (complex molecules containing the important life elements carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen): thymine, adenine, cytosine, and guanine (T, A, C, G). For Watson and colleagues, the specific related problems were: What is the exact relationship among these six subunits? How do they look together physically and act chemically? How is reproduction accomplished through this structure?

Attempting to picture the DNA molecule more exactly than Wilkins’ X rays had thus far been able to do, Watson and Crick, working in a shabby shack called The Hut, spent much of their time building three-dimensional models, working with pieces of wire, colored beads, steel rods, and oblongs of sheet metal....

(The entire section is 2091 words.)

James D. Watson Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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 entire section is 1517 words.)

James D. Watson Biography

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

James Dewey Watson was born in Chicago, on April 6, 1928. He was an exceptionally bright child who excelled far beyond his school course...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

James D. Watson Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Edelson, 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...

(The entire section is 193 words.)