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James Watson famously discovered the double helix DNA structure with Francis Crick in 1953. He received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 alongside Crick and Maurice Wilkins. He worked at Harvard University as a geneticist, zoologist, and molecular biologist where he promoted research. He encouraged the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to begin researching cancer and helped found the Human Genome Project. His contributions revolutionized the world of molecular biology and science as a whole.

Youth and Early Education

  James Watson was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois to parent’s James D. Watson and Jean Mitchell.[1] He was raised Catholic, but later identified as an atheist.<r>Watson, 2003</ref> He attended Horace Mann Grammar School and South Shore High School in the south of Chicago. He received a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago in 1943, at only 15 years old.[2]

Watson originally majored in ornithology stemming from his love of bird watching he shared with his father, but changed to genetics after reading Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? in 1946.[3] He graduated in 1947 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Zoology. He attended Indiana University where he studied under Salvador Luria and graduated with a Ph.D. in 1950.[4]

 ==Post-Secondary Education and Career Beginnings ==

James Watson met Luria in 1948 when he began his doctoral research. Lucia and Max Delbrück worked in the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where they investigated microbial genetics with Drosophila fly experiments in hopes to discover a gene’s physical nature.[5]

James Watson’s early scientific introductions from the Phage Group influenced his later career choice to discover the structure of DNA.

Watson gained exposure to new scientific theories from the so-called “Phage Group” including the Avery-MacLeod-McCarty experiment that argued DNA is a genetic molecule and not simply a structural support for proteins.[6] He graduated in 1950 with a Zoology Ph.D.

That summer James D. Watson began a year of postdoctoral research at Copenhagen University and headed Herman Kalckar’s biochemistry laboratory.[7] Watson attended a speech by Maurice Wilkins in Italy, where he discussed his data on X-ray diffraction of DNA, reinforcing Watson’s theory that DNA maintained a definite structure.[8] He chose to work with Ole Maaloe, a microbial physiologist and Phage Group member, to pursue his interest in the structure of DNA. They used radioactive phosphate to trace the specific parts of phage particles infecting a bacteria’s DNA during infection.[9]

The Discovery of the DNA Double Helix

James Watson began working in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in 1951 where he met Francis Crick. In March of 1953, the pair successfully identified the double helix structure of DNA.

James Watson and Francis Crick’s identification of the double helix was possibly the most important scientific discovery of the 20th century.

They built their DNA discovery on data collected by Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, but only obtained Wilkins’ permission to use it.[10]

James Watson and Francis Crick submitted their findings, which were published in Nature on April 25, 1953.[11] In 1962, James Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for determining the structure of DNA.[12] The death of Rosalind Franklin in 1958 meant she could not be nominated.[13]

Further Career Highlights and Writings

James D. Watson began teaching in the Harvard University, Biology department in 1956. He explored the role of Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) in transferring genetic information. He transformed the school’s curriculum to focus on molecular biology rather than general biology. In 1968, he became director of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) while remaining at Harvard until 1976.[14] James Watson wrote and published The Double Helix recounting his DNA discovery the same year.[15]

Watson's work at the CSHL from 1968 until 2007 greatly increased the lab’s research and educational programs and turned their focus to the diagnosing and treating of cancer and neurological diseases. The National Institutes of Health appointed Watson to head the Human Genome Project in 1990. He headed the project until April 10, 1992, when he resigned in protest after Director Bernadine Healy attempted to patent gene sequences.[16]

==Controversy and Retirement==
 Throughout his career James Watson made controversial comments that are considered insensitive, sexist, homophobic, and overtly racist. He was forced to retire on October 25, 2007, after widespread criticism of his remarks regarding a connection between intelligence and race.[17] He signed the Humanist Manifesto in 2003 with 22 other Nobel Laureates.[18]

Family Life

In 1968, James Watson married Elizabeth Lewis. The couple produced two sons, Rufus Robert Watson in 1970 and Duncan James Watson in 1972. His first son, Rufus, is schizophrenic and driving force behind Watson’s commitment to using genetics to discover the root of different diseases.[19]



Strandell, B. (1964). Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1942–1962. Journal of Internal Medicine, 176(6), 800.

Watson, J. D. (2003). Genes, Girls, and Gamow: After the Double Helix. United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.


  1. Strandell, 1964
  2. Strandell, 1964
  3. Friedberg, E. C. (2004). Writing Life of James D. Watson: Professor, Promoter, Provocateur. United States: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, U.S.
  4. Cullen, K. E. (2006). Biology: The People Behind the Science. New York: Chelsea House.
  5. Watson, J. (1950). The Biological Properties of X-Ray Inactivated Bacteriophage.
  6. Watson, J. D. (1950). THE PROPERTIES OF X-RAY-INACTIVATED BACTERIOPHAGE I. Journal of Bacteriology, 60(6), 697–718.
  7. Strandell, 1964
  8. Judson, H. F. (1980). The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology. United States: Simon & Schuster.
  9. McElheny, V. K. (2004). Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution. United States: Perseus Books.
  10. Strandell, 1964
  11. Watson, J. D., & Crick, F. H. C. (1953). Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. Nature, 171(4356), 737–738. doi:10.1038/171737a0
  12. Strandell, 1964
  13. PBS. (1998). Rosalind Franklin. A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries.
  14. DNA Learning Center, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. (2011). James Watson (1928-). DNA from the Beginning.
  15. Watson, J. D. (2001). The Double helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  16. National Institutes of Health. (2016, March 17). National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). The NHI Almanac.
  17. Blue, L. (2007, October 19). The Mortification of James Watson. Time, Inc.
  18. American Humanist Association. (2016). Notable Signers. American Humanist Association.
  19. DNA father James Watson’s “holy grail” request (2009, May 10). The Telegraph.

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