The discovery of the structure of DNA has been called the most important scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. For that, James Dewey Watson, along with colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. They had discovered the basic blueprint of all living organisms, the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, which transfers genetic information from generation to generation.
Watson and Crick called the structure they found a “double helix,” a spiraling complex of double-stranded nucleic acids of DNA they described as a “gently twisted ladder” that is the physical and chemical basis of heredity. The double helix was a term that became part of the public lexicon as the title of Watson’s 1968 best-selling book, The Double Helix. Watson and Crick decided that the structure could best be deduced by experimenting with scientific models, which demonstrate the complex DNA framework, an elegantly beautiful structure. The X-ray diffraction patterns of DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins further led them to an understanding of its structure, showing that both sides of the “ladder” had a backbone of sugar and phosphate molecules in repeating units, explaining why each time a cell divided, DNA would be copied precisely. The details of DNA are so precise that they can mean the difference between a man and a mouse, or life and death.
By March 1953, they had succeeded in discerning the structure of DNA and published their findings in an article in the scientific journal, Nature, in April. But no one seemed to notice. Just two weeks earlier, their discovery had been announced at a physics and chemistry conference in Belgium. Nothing about it appeared in the press. It was known just as the “WatsonăCrick Hypothesis.”
Later, a London newspaper ran a story and the Cambridge University student paper did an article. Still no reaction. In June, when Watson presented the finding at a conference in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, many scientists in attendance said that they had not heard about it before. To that point, DNA had always been considered an insignificant component of proteins, not the key genetic structure it now turned out to be. Watson had been working a long time, during his PhD studies and in his earliest days as a molecular biologist both in England and in the United States, to uncover the secrets that led to its identity.
Recognition finally came as, with continued research, Watson gained credibility for his findings about DNA structure, describing how the two chains of the helix unlink “like a zipper” and reproduce their missing halves, each molecule creating an identical copy of itself. The portion of the DNA molecule that stores genetic material is called a gene. In 1962, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded Watson and his colleagues the Nobel Prize “for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material.” What they had found would lead to greater study of molecular biology and genetics as well as to the development of genetic engineering.
Watson was invited to join the faculty at Harvard University in 1956, where he was professor of biology until 1976 and continued his research in molecular biology. Meanwhile, he also took on the directorship of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1968 and became its full-time director from 1976 to 1994. In 1990, Watson was the architect and the first director of the $3 billion government project, the National Institute of Health’s Human Genome Program, where the full human genome sequence was completed in 2003. This potentially will lead to the development of tests and possible cures for many hereditary diseases passed down in the genetic code.
Watson had his own genome sequenced in 2007 by another company, 454 Life Sciences Corporation, and published the results online. The sequencing took two months and cost close to $1 million (eventually the cost of sequencing an individual’s genome is predicted to be closer to $10K). But tracking one’s genome carries its own risks. For example, it disclosed that Dr. Watson had the gene for Alzheimer’s disease. He said he would make his full genome sequence available to researchers except for the apolipoprotein E gene, which carries Alzheimer’s, as he did not want to know its status. His genome and that of one other person, Dr. J. Craig Venter, are used as standard references for genome sequencing.
Initially, James Dewey Watson wanted to be a zoologist. He earned his BS in zoology at the University of Chicago in 1947 when he was only 19 and went on for PhD studies at Indiana University so that he could work with Salvador Luria, a Nobel Prize winner in molecular biology who was researching genetic mutations. Luria was a member of the Phage Group (the word “phage” is a shortened form of bacteriophage, meaning viruses that infect cells). This was a group of scientists at Indiana who were working to find the gene and its physical makeup. Watson, intrigued, joined the group. After he received his PhD in 1950 (in three years at the age of 22), he did postdoctoral research in Copenhagen with a noted biochemist, Herman Kalckar. Accompanying Kalckar on a trip to Italy, Watson met Maurice Wilkins and learned of the X-ray diffraction image patterns of DNA taken by Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. X-ray diffraction is a method of analysis that can determine cell parameter and framework, for example, atoms within a crystal, and produce a three-dimensional picture. The X-ray diffractions done by Wilkins and Franklin gave Watson clues that DNA might have a definite molecular structure, and he wanted to do his own X-ray diffractions to follow up.
His mentor Prof. Luria and biochemist Sir John Kendrew arranged a postdoctoral research project for Watson at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in England. It was at this laboratory that Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. In awarding them the Nobel Prize along with Wilkins, the Nobel Committee also acknowledged the role of the late Rosalind Franklin.
Watson would receive many more awards for his work on DNA and genetics, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 from President Jimmy Carter for “his intellectual courage and relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge [which] have earned him the respect and admiration of his country and a permanent place as one of the great explorers of the 20th century.” With Crick, Watson received the Philadelphia Liberty Medal in 2000, an award established to honor those people and organizations who represent the founding principles of the United States. Watson was the recipient of more than 19 honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from Harvard University and Cambridge University, and was made an Honorary Knight Commander in the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2007.
In addition to his best-selling book, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Watson, with colleagues, also wrote an important textbook, Molecular Biology of the Gene, now in its seventh edition. Another text, Molecular Biology of the Cell, was published in 1983 and is in its third edition. Watson’s personal memoir, Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science, published in 2007?, caused an uproar when, during a book tour interview, Watson commented that intelligence was not evenly distributed in African countries and was problematic for the future development of these countries. Such was the public and media controversy over these remarks, criticized as racist, that, even though he apologized and reframed his comments, Watson had to cancel his book tour. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where he had been appointed chancellor, suspended him, and he resigned.
Watson was no stranger to controversy. He had actively participated in protests against the Vietnam War while he was at Harvard and against the proliferation of nuclear power plants. In lectures and public appearances, he supported genetic screening and genetic engineering. In his memoir, Avoid Boring People, he did some name-calling, labeling his fellow academics “dinosaurs” and “deadbeats,” burning a few bridges. Nonetheless, Watson was a genuine pioneer in genetics and opened the door to its possibilities both good and bad. Today, DNA testing, though still prohibitively expensive, is available to the public, helping to track genetic diseases, help people trace their ancestry, and give adopted children a way to find their parents and relatives.
James Dewey Watson was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, to parents James D. Watson and Jean Mitchell. He had wanted to be an ornithologist initially, captivated as was his father, James D. Watson, with the aviary world. Father and son spent many hours bird-watching together, a hobby that led the younger Watson to a lifelong interest in birds and genetics. He was a precocious student in Horace Mann High School and as a teenager was one of the originals on the television show, Quiz Kids. When he was only 15, he was admitted to the experimental four-year program at the University of Chicago with a tuition scholarship. He received his PhD at 22 from Indiana University with a doctoral dissertation on the effect of hard X-rays on bacteriophage multiplication. Both degrees were in zoology. Watson married Elizabeth Lewis in 1968 and they had two sons, Rufus and Duncan.
As Francis Crick said of Watson in his book, What Mad Pursuit,
The major credit I think Jim and I deserve... is for selecting the right problem and sticking to it. It’s true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold. Both of us had decided, quite independently of each other, that the central problem in molecular biology was the chemical structure of the gene.... We could not see what the answer was, but we considered it so important that we were determined to think about it long and hard, from any relevant point of view.
Crick, Francis. What Mad Pursuit. New York: Basic Books, 1990.
“The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1962.” January 25, 2012. Nobelprize. org. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1962/index.html
Wade, Nicholas. “Genome of DNA Pioneer Is Deciphered.” The New York Times, May 31, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/31/science/31cnd-gene.html
Watson, James Dewey . Avoid Boring People and Other Lessons from a Life in Science. New York: Random House, 2007.
Watson, James Dewey. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Structure of DNA. New York: Atheneum, 1968.