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...
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