Nov 8, 2022 • 7M

James Watson: Co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix

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James Dewey Watson was born on April 6, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, the United States, as the only child of James D Watson and Jean Mitchell. Spending his childhood in Chicago, James Watson attended Horace Mann Grammar School and South Shore High School before earning a tuition scholarship the University of Chicago at age 15 for their experimental four-year college. In 1947, he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology and secured a PhD in 1950 from Indiana University in Bloomington.

For James Watson and his father, birdwatching was a serious hobby. During his time at the University of Indiana, James Watson grew interested in genetics and heredity, and he published his thesis on the biological characteristics of X-rays on bacteriophage multiplication. In addition, he became interested in the work of scientists at the University of Cambridge who were experimenting with photographic patterns created by X-rays.

As a Merck Fellow of the National Research Council, Watson began his post-doctoral studies in Copenhagen in 1950. During this time, he teamed with biochemist Herman Kalckar and then with microbiologist Ole Maale to examine the structure of DNA using bacterial viruses. In 1951, Watson travelled with Kalckar to the Zoological Station in Naples, Italy, where he met biophysicist and Nobel laureate Maurice Wilkins.

In 1953, using X-ray diffraction research, Watson and Crick developed  a molecular model describing the known physical and chemical properties of DNA.

Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria and English biochemist John Kendrew assisted Watson in moving his study to the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, where he continued his work with X-rays and learnt diffraction techniques. It was there that Watson met molecular researcher Francis Crick, who shared his curiosity for DNA structure and later became his partner in DNA research.

In 1953, using X-ray diffraction research, Watson and Crick developed  a molecular model describing the known physical and chemical properties of DNA. Their model, consisting of two intertwined spiral strands resembling a twisted ladder, was called the ‘double helix’. The duo also observed that if the two sides of the DNA separated, each would serve as the foundation of a pattern for producing new strands identical to their previous companions. This theory and subsequent study explained the process of gene replication and, later, chromosome replication.

In April 1953, documenting their DNA double-helical structure, Watson and Crick published a paper in the scientific journal Nature. Their hypothesis also suggested that the sequence of bases throughout the DNA molecule spells some code that is ‘read’ by a biological mechanism and translated into the specific proteins responsible for the structure and function of a cell.

In 1962, James Watson, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, received a Nobel Prize for their work.

James Watson moved to Harvard University in 1955, where he taught biology and continued his research for 15 years. Molecular Biology of the Gene, one of the vastly used biology texts written by James Watson, was published during this time. He took over the Laboratory of Quantitative Biology in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York, in 1968 and transformed it into a global powerhouse of molecular biology research. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, Watson's first memoir, was written in the same year.

From 1988 to 1992, Watson worked with the National Institutes of Health to design and oversee the Human Genome Project, where he directed the mapping of human chromosomal genes. In 2007, he became the second person in history to have his genome sequenced. Watson wrote the memoir, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science, in the same year.

In 1962, James Watson, along with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, received a Nobel Prize for their work. Apart from the Nobel Prize, James Watson won numerous awards and recognitions. Watson shared the John Collins Warren Prize of the Massachusetts General Hospital in 1959, and the Lasker Award in 1960 with Francis Crick. Additionally, Watson was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Danish Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Watson was in the headlines through his back-to-back sexist and racial statements. In 2007, Watson made a racial statement that Blacks are genetically less intelligent than white people. Following this remark, the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York removed Watson’s honorary titles. It was only one among James Watson’s list of controversial statements. In 2000, during a guest lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, Watson made a fat-shaming remark: “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad because you know you’re not going to hire them.” In that same lecture, Watson made an absurd comment that there was a link between sun exposure and sexual prowess. In later years, he continued making sexist, racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic statements that received massive criticism from the scientific community.

James Watson married Elizabeth Lewis in 1968, and they have two sons, Rufus, and Duncan.

In 2014, Watson became the first living Nobel laureate to sell his award. Alisher Usmanov, listed by Forbes as Russia’s richest man, auctioned the Nobel Prize for 4.1 million dollars and later returned it to Watson.

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