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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2091

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.

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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. Across the Atlantic, help and competition came from California, where Linus Pauling was demonstrating, through similar models, that proteins have the form of a helix, or coil. Not yet determined, however, was the number of coils and how they are held together. For nearly two years they worked, often with Watson proposing a structural model and Crick checking its chemical and mathematical accuracy. They considered DNA structures of from one to four coils; finally, Watson became convinced of a double coil or helix, on the basis of his awareness of the repeated finding of twoness in biological systems—especially genetically, where one cell often divides and distributes its crucial contents to two offspring. This hypothesis about function, therefore, was crucial to Watson’s discovery of the true model for structure. The DNA picture which Watson rightly affirmed to be too pretty not to be true turned out to be as follows: a double spiral staircase (sugar and phosphate units) with the stairs between consisting of specific sequences of pairs of the four bases T, A, C, and G. Functionally, during reproduction of the cell, this DNA molecule divides by having the two staircase parts uncoil, the stairs between split, and material from all six subunits distribute to the offspring. Each ladder half then becomes the mold, or template, for assembling new ladders.

In the spring of 1953, Watson and Crick published some of these findings in a nine-hundred-word article in Nature, a leading international journal. Their findings were greeted by immediate acclaim, followed by verification. In 1957, Dr. Arthur Kornberg of Washington University in St. Louis confirmed the Watson-Crick model by synthesizing DNA from its six constituents. The same year, Watson and Crick proposed a similar structure for viruses; this was confirmed by the electron microscope studies of Dr. Robert Horne, of Cambridge, England. In 1962, Watson, Crick, and Wilkins were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology for their work in DNA synthesis. In 1968, Watson published The Double Helix, a subjective account of his remarkable two years in England and a rare and skillful blending of scientific reportage with personal autobiography.

Between 1953 and 1955, Watson was a senior research fellow in biology at California Institute of Technology, the home base of his old friend and rival Linus Pauling. After 1955, he taught at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rising to the rank of full professor of biology in 1961. In 1968, he became director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. Also in that year, he married Elizabeth Lewis, with whom he had two sons, Rufus Robert and Duncan James.

Watson also made significant research contributions in the areas of sexuality and reproduction of bacteria; mechanisms of protein biosynthesis in which life molecules even larger than DNA are produced through the combining of nucleic acids; and induction of cancer through viruses. Impatience with conventional, single-discipline approaches to the solution of scientific problems is a continuing, unifying theme in Watson’s work. His links to both basic and applied science and to the arts are underscored by the awards made to him, including the Eli Lilly Biochemistry Award in 1959 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. He has also been a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Cancer Board, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a past director of the Human Genome Project.

Some of Watson’s other significant publications include Origins of Human Cancer (1977, edited with H. H. Hiatt and J. A. Winsten) and The Molecular Biology of the Cell (1983).


Several themes relate James D. Watson’s life and career to American culture in the mid-twentieth century. Watson’s early life is a modern version of the Horatio Alger success story; a young man from the West who wins international fame through a combination of hard work, intellectual brilliance, and luck—as well as the blessings of good public education and generous availability of federal research funds in the years after World War II. He represents a new version of an old American heroic type, the questing scientist, descendant of the nineteenth century pioneer-inventor whose hallmark was self-reliance and ingenuity. Watson, however, has been no ivory-tower hermit; early in life, he demonstrated a flair for collaborative creative work with colleagues from different backgrounds. The progress of twentieth century science in general has been through such international, often American-inspired collaborations.

Watson’s work has underscored the importance of interrelationship among different scientific disciplines, such as biology, chemistry, and physics, a concept pioneered in the United States and often a model for European and Asian researchers, many of whom were encouraged to move across subject-matter boundaries during an American apprenticeship. The international, interdisciplinary conference, in which scientists from many nations and fields of knowledge meet to share common concerns, has been a recurrent event in Watson’s career as well as a symbol of political and intellectual involvement of twentieth century America. Another barrier to scientific communication has been lowered in the example of Watson’s work: the distinction between pure and applied science and between the scientist and the technician; in the story of DNA identification, the photographer and the builder of mechanical models played significant roles, along with the mathematician and the theoretical physicist.

Watson’s interests and achievements have also underscored the continuity between normal and abnormal. His work in genetics and molecular biology has had direct implications for poliomyelitis research and, even more significant, for the fight against cancer. Finally, Watson’s career illustrates the successful combining of teaching with research, previously perceived as opposing interests.

If the image reflected by Watson’s career has been that of the brash, competitive American, it has also been that of the unconventional, flexible facilitator, a creator cutting across traditional boundaries.


Frankel, Edward. DNA: Ladder of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1964. Lucid, well-illustrated book for readers with little scientific training. Excellent sections on the cell and on the relation of DNA to metabolism, reproduction, and disease. Fine context for appreciating Watson’s special contribution.

Kendrew, John C. The Thread of Life: An Introduction to Molecular Biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. Text by one of Watson’s English colleagues with an important section on X-ray diffraction, one of the most important tools for the discovery and verification of components in a structure which cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Riedman, Sarah Regal, and Elton T. Gustafson. Portraits of Nobel Laureates in Medicine and Physiology. London: Abelard-Schuman Publishers, 1963. Clearly written biographical study of Watson in the context of other honored scientists. Accessible to the nonscientist.

Schmeck, Harold M., Jr., and Philip M. Boffy. “Rapid Advances Point to the Mapping of All Human Genes.” The New York Times, July 15, 1986, sec. C:1. Summary of research in DNA decoding and some of the significant medical implications of this work. For the general reader.

Watson, James Dewey. The DNA Story: A Documentary History of Gene Cloning. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1981. An updated, more technical account of DNA structure and function than the one in The Double Helix.

Watson, James Dewey. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York: Atheneum Press, 1968. A subjective, blow-by-blow account of the solution of the DNA riddle by Watson and his colleagues. An honest record of scientific cooperation and competition with two additional themes: the conflicts of an innocent young American abroad, and the difficulties of a brilliant young woman researcher in gaining acceptance from prejudiced mail colleagues. Few scientists have left such a vivid, personal account of their work.

Watson, James Dewey. The Molecular Biology of the Gene. New York: W. A. Benjamin Publishers, 1970. An undergraduate college textbook which explores in detail the implications of the discovery of DNA for the entire field of heredity. Watson’s original area of scientific research.

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