James D. Watson

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(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...

(The entire section is 2,478 words.)